Faith Life, February 2016

Travis Smith Finds Humor in Hardship

by Susan Brown

DSCN5466-2With a quick wit and disarming smile, Travis Smith instantly puts you at ease. His humor is straight up, unrestrained and real. As a standup comedian, he challenges and inspires his audiences to find humor, even in hardship. But as he puts it, he has an unnatural edge – he is blind.

It was not always that way. In 1994, he was headed up the corporate ladder with his eyes on district management and enviable financial success. But he began experiencing temporary optical blackouts, eventually traced back to congenital hydrocephalus, known as “waterhead baby,” a condition detected by doctors when he was two days old. At age 20, his vision went from near perfect to near zero within a matter of months.

“I knew pretty quickly that God was trying to get my attention,” he explained. “And the best way to do that was to put a brick wall in front of me.”

“After about six months I decided that I had two options,” he said. “I could either roll over and die or get up and go on with my life,” he said. “And I chose to go on with my life.” That meant re-evaluating his choices. Everything had to be redesigned in light of his new reality.

Today, he is stronger, more fearless in his faith. And funnier. Friends encouraged him to turn his wise-cracking sense of humor into a standup comedy routine.

“I would just take something you say and turn it around into something funny,” he said. That includes joking about things that happen to blind people because they’re just people, and funny things happen to them, too. “I’m like, if I say it’s funny, it’s okay, it’s funny…Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.”

kneeling hugging DJ with him looking into the camera-2It took a while for Smith to be convinced to take his comedy to the next level. “I thought maybe I could use this to further the kingdom, so I started praying really hard about it and I had some of my close friends praying about it, and then I just decided, okay, I’m going for this,” he said. He soon discovered that writing comedy routines came naturally. “It was amazing how easy it was because 90 percent is based on something that either directly happened to me or someone I know.”

Smith usually spends 30-45 minutes on comedy then 15-25 minutes on a gospel presentation. He has performed for teens and senior adults at local churches, but is hoping to broaden his audience. “I do have a very strong heart for the gospel and I try to lay it out in a way that’s clear and concise,” he said. “But I also feel that we water the gospel down a lot . . . that it is important to admit that you’re a sinner, believe that Christ died for you and confess him as Lord and Savior, but you also have to follow him – you have to pick up your cross and follow him daily.”

“There is a huge lack of discipleship in the American church and that’s very sad,” Smith said. He uses his presentation to encourage people to read and study the Bible. “Jesus wants more than an acquaintance with us,” he explained. “He wants to be an intimate friend. Not just some person that you friended on Facebook. I have friends on Facebook that I’ve never messaged once.”

Smith also uses humor to teach children and middle school boys at Judson Baptist Church in Walker. He donned his own Renaissance costume – modeled after Boromir in “Lord of the Rings” – to help lead a series of lessons in the AWANA program for K-6th grade kids. In March 2015, he began leading children’s worship on Sunday mornings. “I’ve developed very close relationships with a lot of the kids; I’m willing to make a complete and total fool out of myself for their benefit, and they love that.”

While Smith is willing to perform for a broad audience, he feels a special connection with young people who relate to his quirky sense of humor and respect straight talk. He doesn’t shy away from the struggle in his story or the importance of faith in dealing with challenges.

DSCN5461-2It has not been easy. After connecting with Louisiana Rehabilitation Services in Baton Rouge, he spent nine months at Affiliated Blind of LA in Lafayette learning how to navigate life.

“It’s kind of like having a severe stroke,” he explained. “I had to learn how to read again; I had to learn how to walk. I had to learn how to cook and clean, how to use computers again. That was hardest to accept.

“I was a big, big techno nerd before I lost my eyesight,” he said. Although his computer skills increased considerably, Smith said he is not up to his former level of proficiency, “The world at large really does not think about blind people when they design applications and websites.”

The next major life change: deciding whether to go home to family in the Baton Rouge area or risk life on his own. “I decided to stay in Lafayette where I had no family or friends because I knew that would force me to be independent,” he said. “I was terrified.” With a guide dog at his side, he enrolled at Southwest Louisiana Community College. He completed his studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with a degree in history after discovering that calculus was no laughing matter.

New Orleans-based Lighthouse of Louisiana, new to the Baton Rouge area, provided work substituting on the production line but not the fulltime, skilled employment he was seeking. It was a humbling experience, but a foot in the door. From there, he moved to fulltime receptionist where he was recognized as indirect employee of the year. The award came with a trip to the National Industries for the Blind conference in Washington, DC.

Over a year ago, Smith began a new role as customer service manager for Lighthouse, a job that had never been performed by someone without sight.

DSCN5455-2“Travis is very tech savvy which has been a great benefit. He is the trail blazer for those systems,” said Director of Sales and Marketing Stephanie Benedetti. “One of our goals is to take jobs that are traditionally done by a sighted person and try to transform them, if it makes sense. Now the system we have is accessible to other people who are blind. It has really opened up jobs in that sector for us that were potentially closed.”

Lighthouse of Louisiana is a century-old 501c3 organization on Flannery Road that produces cups and other items for clients including the U.S. Military, Ironman Triathlons, and Whole Foods Market. It provides visual rehabilitation services including training courses to help people learn to navigate safely in a home and work environment. Lighthouse also offers a store specializing in products for visually impaired people, including talking Bibles.

“This is where God obviously wants me,” Smith said. “The challenge is to be His representative and be firm in what I stand for but not push people away. I have to love them in the process.”

Smith said the best thing a sighted person can do for someone who is blind is talk to them. “Most people are not going to be shy about what they need,” he said. “When I interact with someone for the first time, if they’re offering to walk me somewhere, I’ll explain this is how we do it and why we do it this way.”

Smith said his life is completely different than he expected, including his calling to comedy, but he is grateful for the insight that God has provided through sightlessness. “The one thing I would say is I’m just like you, I have the same dreams, the same hopes, the same fears and the same needs that you do. I just see the world from a different pair of eyes.” [Comedy shows may be booked by calling 337-371-8871 or by email at V8DodgeRam318@gmail.com].