Tracey: Community Engagement for a Full and Meaningful Life


A black woman with braids and gold hoop earrings smiling at the camera in a pink dress and black sweater.


Tracey is a young adult and a full-time student at a state college in Massachusetts, studying criminal justice and sociology. She also is pursuing her passion as a motivational speaker. Tracey uses a variety of supports that help her study, participate in her community, and plan for life after graduation. Tracey chooses her own supports, which currently include a personal care attendant hired by her family and support from her mom and siblings. 

What’s Important

Tracey appreciates opportunities to connect with other people, learn about them, and find out what motivates them. She learned that she enjoys public speaking after she gave a presentation at her school about her disability at age 14. Shortly after that first speaking engagement, the school administrators created other opportunities for Tracey to speak to students who seemed discouraged and unmotivated about staying in school and going on to college. During the summers, Tracey decided to volunteer at a program run by special education teachers to read books with students. The students paid extra attention whenever she was reading with them because they thought of her as a peer. The teachers observed this and encouraged Tracey to keep volunteering there.

From this summer experience, Tracey gained the confidence to propose starting a book club for preteens and younger children who attend her church. Her family supported her to hold book club meetings at her house, and parents brought their kids there regularly for more opportunities to read.

"I used to help 8–12-year-old kids learn how to read," Tracey explains, adding that she used to give them assignments for the week and would tell them, "Read this during the week; we'll discuss it when we come to book club."

Families from the church congregation observed Tracey’s management of the book club. They got to know her much better and appreciated her capacity to contribute to the church community. They invited her to lead speaking opportunities, church discussions, and other activities that interested her.

Tracey shared that attending college has opened new opportunities to engage in her community. She describes life as a college student as invigorating, noting that:

"The school has had a special needs panel talk and I was one of the panelists in that discussion for people to understand what it's like to have special needs and to express our opinions and try to inform inclusivity on campus."

Tracey is also a member of the Black Students Union Club and the Multicultural Club, both of which help her connect with people from different cultures, share experiences, and be part of the community.

Tracey, like most people, found the period during the COVID-19 public health emergency very challenging and isolating. Her mom supported her to engage online with others through Clubhouse, a speaking and networking platform. While her mom encouraged Tracey to use the app, she largely left it up to Tracey to find her own space on it and make her own connections. Tracey’s participation in Clubhouse helped her make new friends, some of whom invited her as a guest speaker on their podcasts. Tracey hopes to continue with her online speaking engagements when she graduates from college.

What Happened

Attending college and engaging with college life has resulted in even more inclusion for Tracey in her community, as it gives people a chance to see her for more than her disability.

"Sometimes, when I start to talk, they're like, wow! She thinks that! She can say all that! I feel like once other kids with disabilities start communicating more, that will be normalized. It won't be like a shock that they're that intelligent, you know." Tracey added.

Tracey continues to speak on Clubhouse and post on social media. She considers her social media community the biggest community in her current life and sees it playing a role in her future as an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and coach.

"I try to motivate in areas of personal development, mindset, purpose, mental health, and faith," she explains. "I feel like everyone has a purpose in life and I try to inspire people by telling them those kinds of things."

Tracey was able to meaningfully engage in her community because she had the needed support to do so. Tracey’s mom believes that community life engagement starts with early exposure, and her advice to parents is to support their children to get out and be involved in their communities from the time they are young. This way, they can develop their own interests, expand their networks, and chart their own life.

"So, my advice to other parents is, bring your kids out, let them get involved with everything that is going on as much as they can, and in their own way," Tracey’s mom noted.

Lessons Learned

Engaging in the community can improve quality of life. Tracey’s participation in her church, school, and her online community has helped her engage in spiritual, cultural, and intellectual matters on her own terms, and in ways that make the most sense to her.

Engaging in the community benefits everyone. Tracey shared that each of her activities helped others to see her as a person, not as her disability.

Engagement in the community should occur across the life span. Tracey’s family members were her earliest encouragers to get involved. As Tracey expanded her social network throughout her youth, she developed friends and relationships through her church, school, and online communities.

Tracey uses natural support whenever possible. Tracey’s supports are mostly "natural"; they come from family members and people from her school and social media communities. This strengthens Tracey’s ties to her community. These supports help Tracey contribute to and participate in her community to the best of her ability, allowing her to flourish as a college student, church member, and aspiring motivational speaker. The service system provides paid support only as needed and requested by Tracey.