Through the good, the bad and the in-between, Gwinnett native Tracy Ahearn has tried to follow a motto she learned from the Scouts of America —”Leave things better than you found them.”
When her son Wesley was born with autism, she found no better place to give back to than the special needs community as well as senior citizens, both of whom are often disenfranchised and sometimes forgotten by regular society.
“The special needs community is like a parallel world, and it doesn’t really go along with regular society,” said Tracy, who hosts and often self-funds birthday parties for a different client on the last Thursday of each month at Creative Enterprises, a local nonprofit that provides recreational and employment opportunities to adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. “Tracy has done this each month, without fail, for a couple of years. She is truly making a difference,” said Leigh McIntosh, Creative’s CEO.
“For some of these special needs adults, as they age, they start living in group homes where they might not have someone who loves them,” Tracy said. “Some of them have never had a birthday party in their lives, and when we get together and sing Happy Birthday to them; some are in tears because no has ever sung Happy Birthday to them before. It makes you feel wonderful and sad at the same time.”
Before each of these parties, Tracy creates a gift registry. She approaches friends and businesses in the community to help purchase care items like a comb or a toothbrush, socks, personalized T-shirts, with the goal to get a complete outfit and personal care items as well as other special requests. “What do you want more than anything in the world?” each birthday person is asked. Naturally, Tracy receives a variety of responses.
“One girl said she wanted a boyfriend, so we got her flowers and had someone come out to serenade her. Another asked for bubble gum, and we got so much bubble gum that he probably still has enough to last the rest of the year,” Tracy said.
At the end of the day, the work Tracy does is really about making people feel human, just like anyone else. “The greatest gift is giving someone time and acknowledgment and making them feel special in a good way, and it makes them so happy,” Tracy said.
An avid volunteer, Tracy is involved with a host of organizations including Gwinnett Service Providers Network, Glancy Gwinnett Rehabilitation Center. She’s also a board member and Marketing Chair of Mending the Gap, a nonprofit that aims to mend the gap for seniors living with fixed or low income by providing basic needs support services. “We also try to mend the intergenerational gap by connecting youth with seniors to teach them how to use technology, and the seniors can mentor them too and teach them to ‘pull your pants up’ and values,” Tracy said.
Her passion for working with senior citizens draws from a deep-rooted respect for her parent’s generation. “They’re not the generation that always wants to ask for help,” she said.
Her own parents aging process opened Tracy’s eyes to the many obstacles senior citizens face, especially those concerning medical treatment and expenses. “It’s frustrating to know that they’re in need of help – not for lack of trying — they’ve worked hard all their lives, and as they age, there’s these obstacles that they didn’t see coming,” Tracy noted. To help offset those obstacles, Tracy is launching a nonprofit that helps pay utility and healthcare bills. It will be named in honor of her father, who passed away earlier in the year.
A marketing agent by trade, some of the work Tracy has come to love relates to event planning, whether for seniors, special needs adults, or to raise funds. She helps plan and advertise Mending the Gap’s two annual keystone fundraisers. On September 21, they hosted a successful 5K fundraiser at Lilburn Park, and in the spring, they will host their annual “Still I Rise” silent auction to fund their regular groceries and care items deliveries.
She’s not one to say the world is all cupcakes and rainbows, but Tracy’s way of responding to pain is giving back to those who lack joy and celebration in their lives. “I try to keep things positive and make a difference where I can. I’ve been through some hard things in my life. The outreach keeps me not sad and helps lift me up,” she shared. Only two years ago, Tracy faced a task no parent ever expects to experience as she buried her eldest son, Patrick. A week later, she found herself hosting a blood drive, and it gave her purpose, a way to celebrate her son’s memory and give joy to others.
When dealing with all the emotions and hardship that accompany life, volunteering and making others happy is the best form of therapy for Tracy. She extends that lifeline to others in the community who’d like to help. Whether it’s decorating pumpkins with seniors, or wrapping presents at the Santa Shop, she’ll find something for them to do.
“We need volunteers; we need sponsors. Whether someone wants to be an ongoing sponsor or to make a one-time donation, we appreciate it all,” Tracy said. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.