Remembering Roger Smith from “Poor Kids”

April 17, 2018
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

When FRONTLINE viewers last saw Roger Smith in the documentary Poor Kids, the 19-year-old had graduated from high school and was working various jobs to help the family make ends meetHe was living at home in East Moline, Illinois, where he spent hours playing with his little brother, Zakkary, who had been diagnosed with autism.  

“I love that little guy, he’s so awesome,” Smith said. “He’s helped pull the family together and definitely takes a lot of stress out of the day.” 

In the months since the documentary aired, Smith had gotten his driver’s license, which he was especially excited about since it meant he wouldn’t have to rely on others to drive him to work. The family was still struggling, but Smith enjoyed working, especially with his dad. 

On Sunday, Smith was killed when his truck skidded on a frozen overpass and struck a tree, according to local news reports. He was driving with his girlfriend, who survived the crash.  

“He was a wonderful son, an awesome person with a heart of gold. He was the best big brother and friend to all,” his mother, Christy Smith, said in a message to FRONTLINE filmmaker Jezza Neumann. “He always put everyone first, even the moment he died. He shielded his girlfriend with his body to protect her, making him take the whole impact, causing his death. He will truly be missed, and we will never be able to dull this horrible pain and emptiness.” 

Smith was one of several children featured in Poor Kids, Neumann’s 2012 documentary exploring poverty through the eyes of youth. 

When Neumann first filmed the Smith family, Smith’s father, Josh, had been laid off and was trying to find a new job to support the family. They had been kicked out of their farmhouse and were living paycheck to paycheck.  

Reflecting on what it meant to grow up poor in America, Smith told Neumann how surprised he was to learnhow things can change so fast.”  

“You can go from doing OK, not having to go hungry, to this, going hungry and having to pay all your bills and not being able to, on the verge of being homeless again,” he said.

At the time, Smith was just 14. He said he especially missed having access to the internet and playing the game “World of Warcraft.”  

“In World of Warcraft, I am awesome. I’m a level 85 paladin, tank and healer,” he said. “And in real life, I’m a 14-year-old boy with nothing going for him.” 

In an interview, Neumann said he’ll never forget the time he spent filming and getting to know Smith.

“I think Roger was just one of those guys who didn’t say a lot until you spent some time one-on-one with him, and once he got to know you, then he’d really open up,” Neumann said.  

When Neumann returned to Smith’s home for an update to the film, he says he was blown away by how tall the 19-year-old had become, and how much he resembled his father.  

“The thing that stood out to me from seeing him last time was how much he had grown to be this very caring man with a good work ethic and who didn’t ask for much,” Neuman said. “He had good manners, he cared about his girlfriend, he cared about his family … he was a really decent guy who just got on with his life and tried to make the best of it.” 

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