doing it for lee
Inspiring celebrity sports power couple returns to Houston for a great-minded gala
As a widely recognized and celebrated power couple, Allie LaForce and Joe Smith seemingly have it all. LaForce, a former model and Miss Teen USA, is the lead reporter for TNT’s NBA coverage, while former Houston Astros pitcher Smith is now in the rotation for the Seattle Mariners.
Yet, away from the glitz of the TV and red-carpet life, LaForce and Smith have been waging a private and public war against an insidious foe. In August 2020, Smith lost his beloved mother, Lee, to a harrowing, eight-year battle with Huntington’s Disease.
Often described by Joe Smith as a cross between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, Huntington’s is an inherited neurodegenerative condition affecting more than 30,000 Americans each year. The disease slowly attacks the nerve cells in the brain, causing eruptive mood swings, loss of memory, emotional outbursts, and a litany of other neurological distresses.
Like Alzheimer’s, there is no cure and Smith, who also lost his grandmother to Huntington’s, now faces a 50-percent chance of inheriting the affliction.
Determined to take the cruel disease head-on, Smith and LaForce launched the HelpCureHD Foundation to provide financial and emotional support to Huntington’s patients, as well as assist families hoping to stop the disease from passing to their children by utilizing the proven method of Pre-implantation Genetic Testing In-vitro Fertilization (PGT-IVF).
Making a major league difference
In effort to generate awareness and crucial funds for research, the couple hosts a charity golf tournament and the upcoming, annual HelpCureHD Gala, which will be held Wednesday, August 25 from 5 pm to 10 pm at Union Station in Minute Maid Park.
The event will feature a seated dinner, cocktails, auction items, plus music from Nashville artist David Nail. Tickets and sponsorships are available, and more information on the event and the organization can be found here.
To date, four healthy babies have been born with help from the foundation, with seven more families expecting. Notably, the first HelpCureHD baby was born in Texas and will be present at the gala, in what promises to be an inspiring moment for attendees.
Triumph over tragedy
The quest is personal: LaForce tells CultureMap that while she has been undergoing PGT-IVF treatments herself, she miscarried a month ago. Shaken but undeterred, she and Smith are trying again. “We’re definitely actively in that process and we’re super excited about it,” she says.
LaForce points out that her multiple efforts to get pregnant have actually given her even more empathy and desire to assist families who are also going through the PGT-IVF process. “It’s because the first one didn’t go well that we made some decisions about how we approach the families going through our foundation,” she explains. “After not having a great first egg retrieval, I thought to myself, ‘can you imagine after one attempt, being cut off financially — when you have so much more to offer.’”
Her new sense of perspective has made her determined that none of the families in her organization will face that situation.
“I don’t know — if I had a lot of success the first time — that I would’ve been able to empathize with the families we’re working with every single day to try to give this miracle of a child to,” she says. “So, every failure is an amazing blessing.”
Others have been spurred on by the couple’s work. Inspired by Smith’s and LaForce’s out-of-pocket funding, some 30 fertility clinics around the nation are now partnering with the HelpCureHD Foundation to provide free help to more than 70 families.
Impressive work for an organization only a few years old and largely financed by the power couple, two events, and savvy investing. LaForce says she’s motivated to share her story — however raw, personal, and painful it can be at times, in tribute to the women who have in turn inspired her.
“The women who have shared their story about going through IVF and miscarrying have really been a great foundation for me and my strength,” she says, “so I want to make sure I can do that as well.”
Doing it all for Lee
While she was still able to communicate, Lee Smith, who became the brave, public face of the foundation despite her own physical and mental decline, made the couple promise before she passed away that their children wouldn’t have Huntington’s Disease.
“The way her face lit up when we told her our children for sure would not have it was one of the coolest moments and expressions and moments of joy that I’d seen her articulate,” recalls LaForce, who will always remember that smile.
As if the scourge of the affliction wasn’t enough, Smith and LaForce quickly discovered that unlike Alzheimer’s Disease, no facilities exist for Huntington’s Disease. “Patients often get kicked out of homes because they’re too loud or disruptive,” LaForce says.
While Alzheimer’s patients tend to be quiet and docile, Huntington’s patients can even suffer violent moments. Lee was “in and out” of facilities, LaForce notes, before settling into an Alzheimer’s home. In a twist of irony, it turned out to be the very home that housed Lee’s father; nurses there recognized her from her years of visits.
Lee Smith’s final days saw her aggressively drugged on morphine. Worse, in the midst of the COVID pandemic last year, family visitation was difficult. On her final day, LaForce, Joe Smith, and Smith’s father were denied access to Lee.
Again undeterred, the two men disassembled the window to her room, removed the screen, and climbed in so that they could say goodbye, and Smith’s father could spend precious final moments with his cherished, longtime bride.
Joe Smith stepped away from last year’s Astros season to maximize time with his mother. In her loss, the couple, who gratefully count their numerous blessings, learned valuable lessons — such as how little success means in the face of an “evil” disease.
“In this situation, money doesn't mean anything,” says LaForce, bluntly. “Money can’t fund a cure, money can’t find a nice facility for patients to live in. So, we feel that in paying for families to have IVF who can’t afford it, we’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure no one ever has to deal with this disease again.”
Hope for the future
Staring down the specter of his own mortality, Joe Smith made the decision to not get tested for the disease that ravaged his mother and grandmother. “He just didn’t know how he would respond,” explains LaForce. He and LaForce discussed his potential testing and her pregnancy for three years before she started the IVF process, a plan that represented hope for a family and the promise to Lee.
But watching the grueling process that LaForce fearlessly undertook — with myriad injections lasting months, serious discomfort, and more — wore on Smith to the point where he urged his wife to end fertility treatment. Instead, he would get tested for the disease himself — something he vowed to never do.
“I had to stop him,” LaForce remembers. “He would’ve sacrificed anything to not watch me do the shots, but I couldn’t let him do that.”
Once again, struggles brought the couple closer and made them even more motivated and passionate mates, says LaForce, who was inspired by her newly inspired and doting husband.
“The Number One thing that gets me most excited about getting pregnant again is the side of Joe I saw,” says LaForce with a smile. “He was so strong and steadfast. He would FaceTime me from the field multiple times a day and make sure I had my heating pad for my shots and the right massage equipment and food and water and everything I needed. The sense of love and pride and excitement and concern and compassion that he had every day was so beautiful.”
Saying hi to Lee
Comfort from the bitter loss of Lee comes with the hope of a healthy, beautiful baby, says LaForce. Leaning on their personal faith, pledge to each other, mission to help others, and promise to a concerned mother, the couple is forging ahead with fertility treatments (fans and supporters can get updates on LaForce’s Instagram) and are even planning names — including one that’s a permanent greeting to Lee.
“If we’re fortunate enough to have a girl,” explains LaForce, “her name will be HeyLee, so it would be like saying hi to her every day.”
A love for Houston
Their work now brings LaForce and Smith back to Houston, a city that, LaForce says, embraced the newcomers and all their work — from the Astros organization, the players’ families, the medical community, nonprofit partners, fans, and even strangers.
“We’ve lived everywhere in the whole country — and Canada,” says LaForce. “Houston has been one of the most amazing, supportive cities. The outpouring of love that people could have for strangers has been really overwhelming and emotional in all the best ways.” LaForce notes that Houston boasts Texas’ only Center of Excellence for Huntington’s Disease run by Erin Furr Stimming— another plus for the couple’s continued work.
While time here may be short, LaForce says it means everything to them. “It makes us very emotional to leave Houston because there’s nowhere like it.”
Always optimistic, the couple is open to coming back to the Bayou City. Smith is a free agent next year and LaForce’s career allows her to live anywhere. A return to their beloved Houston could see Smith pitching for the Astros, with he and LaForce settled here in the offseason, focusing on their nonprofit — and perhaps, a baby.
Lee, no doubt, would be most proud.
The HelpCureHD Gala will be held Wednesday, August 25 from 5 pm to 10 pm at Union Station in Minute Maid Park (501 Crawford St.) Individual tickets ($500) and table sponsorships are available. For more information, visit the event page.