Story by Megan Whitehead | Jun 27, 2016
Photography by Anthony Jinson

Graci and her family search for a JRA cure through charity and connecting with their community.

by Heather Feeler

There’s an old gospel children’s song that begins, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Letting your light shine—in your own brave and beautiful way—was the first thing that came to mind when meeting Graci Diggs. She’s a girl with an unforgettable story at only 11 years old.

Graci, who lives in Tipton with her parents, Aaron and Anna, started to have strange symptoms, such as fevers and unexplained rashes, when she was 2 years old. After months of tests, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) in 2009. The disease attacks the joints, which turns the immune system on the body and can cause serious complications, such as growth problems and eventual blindness.

“It’s like a hurricane in their little bodies,” Anna explains. “It’s not helping the body at all. It’s turning on the body.”

While the Diggs family was in the dark about JRA in the beginning, including not knowing any other families dealing with the same diagnosis, they quickly turned their fear and uncertainty into something they could control — giving back to others. The family got their first team together, Go, Go, Go Graci, in 2012 to fundraise for the Jingle Bell Run in Columbia, with proceeds going to the Arthritis Foundation. It was also the first step in connecting with other JRA families.

“It was the first time I think we had hope that things would be OK,” Anna says. “We found families that were going through the same things we were.”

It was those connections with other families, at events and conferences, that would help shine the light on how to navigate the uncertain waters. It especially helped Aaron, who struggled as a father on how to fix his little girl’s pain. Another JRA dad gave him the wise words he needed to hear.

“He said, ‘You’re the dad and supposed to fix things that break,’” Aaron says. “This is something you can’t fix. Instead of moping, he said to start fixing other things around you. It changed my whole outlook.”

2014-JC_mag-2This also spurred them into action. In addition to their Jingle Bell Run fundraising efforts, the Diggs family started a slightly unconventional fundraising campaign right in their front yard. They put up a handmade sign that reads “Cans for a Cure,” and they asked community members to throw cans in their yard. The family would then recycle the cans and give all the money to the Arthritis Foundation. People gave generously, with more than 900 pounds of cans.

Even while battling long periods of pain and joint swelling that limit her mobility, including being in a wheelchair after treatments, Graci continues to spread her voice on a local and national level to raise awareness about JRA. She personally told her story as the National Youth Honoree for the Arthritis Foundation in Orlando, testified at the Missouri State Capitol on House Bill 2029, and flew to Washington this past March to talk with legislators about arthritis research. Graci was also interviewed for a segment on “CBS Sunday Morning News,” which hasn’t aired yet, on the cost of medicine in America versus other countries. Graci seems to take all this attention in stride.

“I’m the second most famous person in Tipton,” she laughs. It’s that sense of humor and zest for life, despite her struggle, that makes Graci shine on every stage — at school, on the softball field, at the dinner table, or even on a national stage. Her parents have seen it in her all along.

“God gave her this personality because he knew what was laid out before her,” says Anna with a smile. “She is strong, has a positive attitude, and does not take no for an answer. God has a plan for her, whatever it may be.”

The slogan on this year’s team T-shirts for Arthritis Day in the Park reads, “Never let the fear of arthritis keep you from playing the game.” Graci is more than just a strong player. She’s an inspiration.

“My friends and I are going to find a cure for arthritis,” Graci says. “You can help us by joining our team, giving money, or even throwing cans in my yard.”

To learn more about Graci’s incredible story, you can follow their team Facebook page, Team Go, Go, Go Graci. You can also come to Tipton, Missouri and throw cans in her front yard.