Something about Grace Davis, a 26-year-old Jefferson City native, feels like home. She is inviting and social — she wants others to feel included in every situation. When someone has a birthday, Grace wants everyone to know. Despite the challenges she has endured, she is comfortable in her own skin.
Grace was born with spina bifida, which happens in the womb when the neural tube does not close all the way somewhere along the spine. The day she was born, Grace was taken straight to surgery. She was also born with a Chiari malformation and went into a Chiari crisis at just 21 days old. Grace’s brainstem was being compressed, affecting her ability to swallow and suck. Because of this brain injury, Grace had to have a tracheostomy tube until the age of 6 and a feeding tube until she was 7.
While spina bifida affected Grace’s lower extremities, the Chiari malformation affected the upper half of her body. Nothing throughout Grace’s life has come easy, though not many people would suspect that because of the determination and confidence she emanates each and every day.
Born in Columbia and raised in Jefferson City, Grace gained a sense of belonging in town. She graduated from the Special Learning Center when she was 6 years old and attended their Camp Jade summer program for five more years before becoming a volunteer. “The Learning Center is literally who I am today,” Grace said.
As an avid sports fan — a quality she shares with her father — Grace found ways to integrate sports into her daily life. Her dad coached her Miracle League baseball team when she was younger. She was the manager of her high school softball team, which gave her a sense of community and a group of friends who supported her, looked out for her, kept her away from typical high school drama and, most earnestly, accepted her as part of the team. “She took care of me,” said former Jefferson City softball head coach Lisa Dey. “And not only as the manager of the softball team.” While Grace would have done anything to play on the field with her team, she discovered other ways to be actively involved. “It truly changed everything about her high school career,” Grace’s mother Cindy Davis said.
After graduating from Jefferson City High School in 2016, Grace became the manager for Lincoln University’s softball team for two years. “Sports is my passion,” Grace said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Grace reflected and decided she wanted to spread her wings a little further, and that’s when she found Special Olympics.
A sense of purpose
Through Vocational Rehabilitation, a state agency that helps adults with disabilities find a job, Grace job shadowed a few different places in town. One was a brewery where her roles included bussing tables and cleaning, and another was a massage business, but Grace couldn’t see herself working at either place long-term. When she job shadowed Special Olympics, she felt at home.
“It was a perfect fit because they bring together two things: disability and sports, and I know those two things, and I can relate to these kiddos and adults with disabilities because they have challenges, and that’s what I have,” Grace said.
Grace was hired in October. Her daily tasks include entering sports scores from tournaments into computers, as well as organizing, recycling and building binders of information. For breaks out of the cubicle, Grace plays with younger kids who come to the facility for community integration.
Special Olympics aims to keep day-to-day work fun and interesting for their employees. At their Thanksgiving gathering, Grace’s boss gave each employee a present that they all unwrapped simultaneously, unveiling a Nerf gun for each person, and with that, a spontaneous “Nerf war” broke out in the gymnasium. Now, each employee keeps their Nerf toys in their desk in case another random battle breaks out in the middle of the day — you never know. “Every morning when I walk into work, I think I get hit at least once,” Grace said. “It brightens my day.”
Like any other job, Grace experiences challenges on a daily basis, like getting there on time some days, having to articulate to her boss when she doesn’t understand a task and tolerating Cardinals fans (she is a proud Cubs fan, after all), but interacting with her coworkers and the people that come in for various activities are valuable and rewarding aspects of her position that make it all worth it. Over the past few months working at Special Olympics, Cindy has seen the transformation, maturity and sense of self Grace has gained. “I’ve seen that she brings stories from work, that she is getting her stuff ready the night before because she knows it’s important and somebody is counting on her to be there,” she said. “I really see the sense of purpose blossoming in her.”
Connection and belonging in Jeff City
Jefferson City has supported Cindy and Grace from the day she was born. From the Special Learning Center to Day Solutions to the Miracle League to Special Olympics, doctors, therapists, educators and volunteers have been there to connect with Grace. “When you’re raising a person with a disability, it really does take a village,” Cindy said. “All along the way, Jefferson City has given us such support. There’s not been anything that we needed that we didn’t get here.”
Even through Grace’s daily struggles and complexities, her number one goal is to help and support others. “I know how important it is for people with and without disabilities to feel included and supported,” Grace said. Inclusivity has echoed through Grace’s life since the day she was born. Cindy said almost nothing is fair or easy for Grace, but her success and determination provide perspective. “The little things matter, and the little things are the big things,” she said. Throughout the trials and tribulations of daily life, Grace has confidently persisted. Everyone could be a little more like Grace, and everyone could use a little more grace.