Kristine Smalls is actually a shy person.
So when she saw her mother’s graduation surprise to her — 14 feet high and 48 feet across, towering above bustling Route 130 outside her hometown of Camden — Smalls was shocked.
“OMG, I’m on a billboard,” was Smalls’ reaction. The 30-year-old earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine on Friday.
“Let me Re-Introduce Myself…” the billboard begins, a nod to a Jay-Z song. Beneath her name and full title is also her newly earned moniker: “Dr. Smiles.”
Then: “Look what good came out of Camden!”
Kendra Busbee, a single mother, worked two jobs for most of Smalls’ childhood in Cramer Hill, East Camden, and her behind-the-scenes work allowed Smalls to reach the pinnacle of academic success. After watching Smalls navigate kindergarten through 12th grade — without a single absence, Smalls said — and rack up years of college debt, Busbee wanted to go big and bold. Billboard bold.
“She typically goes above and beyond for me and my brother whenever we, like, have any type of accomplishment,” Smalls said. “She kind of outdoes herself every time.”
Busbee, 52, hatched a surprise celebration of family and friends in the parking lot outside the Pub restaurant, not far from the billboard. At first, Smalls thought the group gathered outside as a precaution against COVID-19. She was blown away when she saw a giant digital version of herself towering over traffic.
Busbee said her daughter had big goals as young as a 4-year-old, and her son is succeeding in high school, on track to earn enough college credits for an associate’s degree with his diploma.
“Every accomplishment that they make, it needs to be heard,” she said. “For our Black and our brown children, letting them know that anything is possible.”
A posting on Facebook of Smalls beneath the billboard has already garnered 100,000 likes, Busbee said.
“We want to start from positivity,” Busbee said. “Every other child that may ride by the billboard, who else will it touch, and who else will it inspire by seeing my daughter and her Black girl magic?”
Using $1,250 she earned as a children’s mobile response worker, Busbee rented the sign for a month to catch the eyes of her daughter and an estimated 150,000 other motorists weekly. “The billboard definitely makes me very happy and makes me feel very good about myself,” Smalls said.
The billboard’s tagline is of utmost importance to the family, and to thousands of current and former residents of Smalls’ beloved but beleaguered city.
Camden, home to 72,000 people, has worked for years to shake the stigma of once being labeled the “most dangerous” city in America. Camden County police say the crime rate fell 53% between 2012 and 2021. Still, violence and poverty remain high.
Just 14% of people age 25 and older in the United States have an advanced degree, and just 3.4% in the city of Camden, according to census estimates. Nationally, only about 1.5% of people in that age group earned a doctorate, compared with 0.1% in Camden.
Those struggles, particularly among young people, are what drove Smalls to pursue a career in clinical psychology, she said.
Born in the city, Smalls still lives in the Cramer Hill neighborhood where her grandmother also resided before her death in 2013. Smalls attended Cooper’s Poynt for elementary school, Sacred Heart for middle school, and Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School.
A middle school valedictorian, Smalls passed on a full scholarship to Camden Catholic High, her mother said, choosing to attend public high school. Smalls says Cramer Hill and the Parkside neighborhoods, and the summer jazz shows on the waterfront, show the Camden she loves even if it has not yet reached its full potential.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Kean University and a master’s from Rowan University with an educational specialist certification, Smalls returned to the district schools she once attended, but as a staff psychologist glad to be of service to her community. “A lot of people forget about mental health and how real and important it is,” said Smalls. “Kids would come in and say their electric is off because their parents can’t afford it.”
Smalls had to leave the job to fulfill a practicum and internship for her doctorate. Still, it inspired her “ultimate goal” to someday open a resource center in Camden for mental health services, reentry support, and family events that would draw young people away from the streets.
Having studied opening a private practice, Smalls knows that’s a big, expensive plan. For now, her mother’s billboard is giving her a boost. “I’ve ridden by it every day,” she said with a laugh.
Based on the flood of positive responses from friends and strangers on social media, Smalls knows the billboard is motivating other people in Camden, too. “This is the change that the city needs to see. There is more to Camden than just the violence. Great things come out of Camden.”