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Grady Finds His People

JA Camp was a game-changer for this teen after his juvenile arthritis diagnosis.

By Allison Wilcosky | Feb. 23, 2024

When Grady Whiteford was 7, he and his family were on a trip in the mountains. On the way up, he started feeling pain in his leg, and by the time they got to where they were going, his leg was swollen. His parents were concerned but hoped the swelling would go down. Grady, however, wanted to go kayaking.

“We didn’t want to get the kayak in the water at the time, but on one leg, he pushed the kayak in the water by himself,” says his mom, Natalie.

By the next morning, Grady’s toes were also swollen, and they went to the doctor. Very quickly, he was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis. He’s since been able to manage his flares with joint injections and medication, but still has mild to moderate pain from time to time.

“He has a tendency to stoically carry on,” Natalie shares.

“I wouldn’t call it stoic as much as I would call it stubborn,” interjects Grady, now 15.

“His fall sport is cyclocross,” Natalie adds. “He did a whole bike racing season in pain all day, every day, and didn't even mention it for a couple of months.”

Grady has been part of robotics teams at school since third grade and is excited about building a robot from scratch this year. But aerospace engineering has also captivated him recently. “I find that profoundly interesting just because everything about it is so cool. The engineering aspect, the exploration aspect, it's the only way to explore further than the moon generally.”

Connecting With the Foundation

“The first few years, we were kind of just coping,” Natalie says. “We had young kids. We thought maybe it could go away. When we finally started to realize that a community might be helpful, then the pandemic hit.”

It was Grady’s rheumatologist who urged them to connect with the Arthritis Foundation and go to JA camp.

Grady joined the Virtual JA Camp before finally being able to go to JA Camp Colorado in person the next year. It was there where Natalie saw a big change in Grady.

“He's not a particularly gregarious kid. But when I picked him up, everyone was hugging him and he had all these great new friends. He went in being like, ‘Eh, maybe this will be fine,’ and came out like, ‘I'm definitely going back. And then someday I'll be a counselor.’”

“At camp, I'm a very different person,” Grady admits. “If you ask any of my friends, I’m usually relatively secluded, reading a textbook.”

Honored to Help

It was Grady’s spirit and enthusiasm at camp that led the Arthritis Foundation Colorado team to choose him as their Walk to Cure Arthritis youth honoree in 2023. His team, The Grady Bunch, raised over $100,000.

“It was a lot of fun,” Grady says. “The public speaking was a little nerve-wracking, but I got through it.”

In preparation for the event, the family recorded a video to share Grady’s journey to that point, and it was eye-opening for Natalie. “I don't think I had realized until then just how far he's come and how proud I am of his journey.”

Grady has been named one of the 2023 National Honorees for the Walk to Cure Arthritis. Natalie reflected on the impact of the Arthritis Foundation.

“I realized how the donations work, and the research that's come before that has enabled his life to be the way it is. Ten, 20 years ago, it would have been a very, very different outcome. I think that was an important thing to realize: how much we're indebted to all the work going on behind the scenes.”

July 11-14, 2024

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