Arlie Smith's face and smile are known to thousands throughout the San Ramon Valley, and now many of them in turn have helped his name become synonymous with a deep commitment to raising vital funds for children in need.
Smith, a longtime cashier and greeter at Danville's Costco, raised more money this spring than any other Costco associate nationwide during the company's annual Children's Miracle Network campaign -- all while himself battling terminal cancer and multiple sclerosis.
"I just love kids ... and I just hate seeing a kid sick," Smith, 46, said during a recent interview in his San Ramon townhouse. "To see a sick child, it's just the worst thing in the world ... I think every child should be outside playing and learning and living a regular life."
And he said that's a big reason he's become such a champion for UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, to support the medical care and advancements helping those ill children.
In all, Costco shoppers and online donors raised more than $130,000 in Smith's name during the store campaign last spring to benefit the hospital.
"Arlie's efforts on our behalf have meant so much to our hospital staff, families and patients," said Melinda Krigel, media relations manager for the hospital. "His unflagging support for us, despite his own health difficulties, has inspired others in our community to give their time to help raise funds or volunteer in other ways to help the hospital."
While Smith avidly participated in the fundraising effort in years past, his drive this year got a jolt after local news outlets, and then some national media, learned about how some San Ramon Valley residents gave back to Smith after hearing about his cancer diagnosis.
In March, a group of local community members -- some who knew Smith, some who just recognized him from Costco and some who'd never met him -- banded together to provide a surprise, expenses-paid Laguna Beach vacation for Smith and his wife, Shari.
The resort getaway in June was a truly memorable experience, Smith said, even though initially, he wanted to turn down the vacation gift and instead have the money donated to Children's Hospital Oakland.
But the woman who spearheaded the trip fundraising was "sneaky and clever" -- Smith joked -- and also gave him money to donate to the hospital.
Perhaps more importantly, she also contacted local media, who covered the gift-giving surprise at Costco. Video and photos from the event soon went viral, as did Smith's call to support Children's Hospital Oakland.
"It just created this wildfire, and I had people coming in (to Costco) acting like they're shaking my hand and handing me $100 bills," Smith said, remembering some days customers combined to give him more than $1,000.
The popularity helped Smith achieve his goal of becoming the top-fundraising Costco associate, but it also came at a cost.
Smith acknowledged he wasn't mentally prepared to handle the flash of fame and slipped into a "deep, dark depression" for several weeks, questioning whether he should be a role model. "I haven't lived a perfect life," he said.
Raised mainly in San Ramon, Smith graduated from California High School in 1988. After serving four years in the military, he began working at the Danville Costco in June 1993.
But as the new millennium dawned, Smith found himself battling alcohol and drug addiction and anger management issues while also struggling to care for his grandparents who were dealing with dementia.
He said the stresses came to a head in November 2001, when the police responded to their house during a loud argument between him and his grandfather about his grandpa needing to take medication. Smith said he opened up to a police officer that night and admitted he had smacked his grandfather -- the man who was his true father figure.
"That's something I can never take back that I did to the people that I cared about the most, to the people that cared about me," he remembered, with tears in his eyes.
Smith said the 11 "peaceful" days he spent in jail for misdemeanor assault proved to be the greatest blessing. His grandparents were able to get the day-in, day-out health care they needed, and he was able to get sober and begin overcoming his addiction and emotional demons.
His life took another unexpected positive turn just six weeks later, the day he met Shari -- Jan. 4, 2002, a date they're both quick to recall.
She was returning a bracelet at Costco, and as she stood in a lengthy line, she watched as Smith interacted with families. "I thought, that is a guy who truly loves children, genuinely loves children," she said.
A conversation sparked, and the two began hanging out as friends a week later, they recalled.
"God just brought us together," Smith said. "I met her, and I've had like 14 years of happiness. Real happiness."
They started officially dating several months later, and they married in April 2003.
Smith's life would take another turn more than four years ago when he first began exhibiting symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis -- a disease that also affected his mother.
And then a second medical bombshell fell last year, when Smith was diagnosed with kidney cancer that metastasized to his bones. Doctors told him the median life span for someone with his cancer was 2 1/2 years.
Smith said that throughout his health battles, the smiling Costco customers and supportive colleagues inspire him deeply -- just as they did during his darkest days.
"Every day at work, these members, without even knowing what they're doing, are breathing life into me," he added.
And when mired in a personal funk amid fame last spring, he credited his assistant store manager with helping him see the light.
"She said, 'Well Arlie, you're a hero for the children.' And that stuck," Smith remembered. "Before she said that, I really had trouble accepting being called a hero."
"When she said that, it made me feel good. It made me feel better. OK, I'll be a hero for the children."
* Arlie Smith attended Neil Armstrong and Walt Disney elementary schools, Pine Valley Middle School, and after moving away to Tennessee, he returned to graduate from Cal High.
* He served in the Army Reserve (1989-91) and in the Navy (1991-93).
* The Smiths aren't parents themselves -- other than to a rambunctious pup named Tinkerbell.
* They attend Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore.
* While eating dinner on their Laguna Beach vacation, Smith remembered trying to pay for a bottle of wine but the restaurant insisted on covering it. The owner, who later chatted with them at their table, was a grandson of film icon John Wayne.
* Money raised by Smith and other Costco associates supports underfunded programs and services at the hospital, as well as its "Family House" that allows qualifying families of ill children to stay on-site, Krigel said.
* Smith's new goal is to raise $1 million for the hospital -- and then find someone to match it. To contribute, visit Bitly.com/arliecares.