By Emma Castleberry
When I spoke to Gracie Parker on the phone in June, I was part of a busy month for the 10-year-old. Her June schedule included a phone call with a White House correspondent, an in-person meeting with a US Congressman, and a planning appointment with her web designer. “One of my goals is to get a Nobel Peace Prize before 14,” she says. “And when I’m 36, I’m going to be in the White House, being president.”
Big dreams are a dime a dozen among children Gracie’s age, but what sets her apart is her ability to act upon those dreams. “The most impressive thing is her confidence and determination to make this world a better place,” says Gracie’s grandmother, Elke Kennedy. “Her willingness and determination to speak out, be the voice for those who can’t, speaking in front of people, getting her message out. She wanted to have a rally in downtown Franklin about youth mental health, and she made it happen.”
The rally, which took place on April 30 and was very well-attended, called upon county officials to provide funding for trauma counselors in schools. “I lost my mom at six months old because of drugs and my dad isn’t part of my life because of drugs and jail,” Gracie says. “My trauma counselor was in our school, but then she was taken out of our school because of funding.” Luckily, Gracie is still able to visit the counselor she had bonded with at a separate facility, but she wants all children to have access to trauma-informed counseling. “Adults assume about what us kids go through,” she says. “They can’t assume what goes through a kid’s mind and speak for a child without actually talking or knowing what they deal with. Try and let a child actually have some input on their feelings. I’m trying to be the voice for the children that cannot speak.”
Gracie’s grandparents, whom she calls Oma and Opa, have always been honest about her adoption and her parents’ struggles with addiction. Along with her grandparents, Gracie has been volunteering at Smoky Mountain Harm Reduction since she was 4, and first spoke about her experiences with substance abuse loss at the organization’s Night of Hope event in 2018. At age 7, she raised $637 for Smoky Mountain Harm Reduction to provide shelter for those who needed it.
Last year, Gracie spoke at the inaugural Trail of Truth National in Washington DC, the largest national memorial for substance-use related deaths, organized by Truth Pharm. Alexis Pleus, executive director of Truth Pharm, first met Gracie when she was being considered as a speaker for the event. “I really feared she was too young,” says Alexis. “I was afraid it would be too hard on her or that it would be too scary for her. She was not having it. She wanted me to know she was 100 percent ready and capable and she had a lot to say. She is brave and assertive.”
Alexis says that Gracie, and children like her, are crucial to the mission of Truth Pharm in terms of advocating for policy change. “Children have been incredibly impacted by this epidemic and the impacts to them are largely ignored,” says Alexis. “Just look at the opioid settlement dollars and where the funding is going—very little has gone towards helping the kids who are left behind or who have a parent who still struggles. Gracie represents literally millions of children left behind, millions of children who are impacted in a devastating way and yet are rarely heard from.”
Gracie’s message regarding substance abuse is simple and concise. “We need money to invest in prevention,” she says. “Prevention is intervention. Basically, people are throwing money at the problem when it’s older and they are losing more money than they would by helping and preventing that trauma at a younger age.”
While Gracie’s schedule is packed with speaking events and public appearances, she’s also a rising 5th grader who is excited about her fun summer plans, especially camp. “Summer is basically best friends, best friends, best friends, sleepover, sleepover, sleepover, pool, pool, pool,” she says with a laugh.
Gracie credits her grandparents for providing her the support she needs to speak up. “I think it’s a lot about my role models, Oma and Opa, being able to encourage me and also just knowing that they have my back and knowing that I’m going to be speaking for the right cause.”
“I truly believe that when you have a passion about something, especially when it’s about being there and standing up for your friends, and putting others first, before even yourself, that’s impressive,” says Elke. “Gracie and her generation are the future and they will change the world.”
To learn more, visit TruthPharm.org.