Polio knocked her down when she was a child, but Frances Gracechild fought back, never allowing her illness to limit her. Then she made it her life’s work to fight for others: people whose bodies were ravaged by disease and disability; the elderly and the infirm; children and women.
For the past 36 years, Gracechild led Resources for Independent Living in Sacramento, which assists people with disabilities in obtaining housing, technology, personal care and other help to live comfortable and productive lives. Outside of the office, she led protests, spoke at public meetings and pushed for legislation to benefit folks with little political clout.
Now, ordinary people and movers and shakers are remembering her legacy. Gracechild , 71, died unexpectedly last month of complications from leukemia. On Friday, she will be honored in a celebration of her life at the California Secretary of State’s auditorium in downtown Sacramento.
“My grandfather said that God gave Frances polio so that the rest of us could have a chance,” said her nephew, Evan LeVang. “She was a real fighter. She never gave up when she believed in something.”
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Born in Southern California, Gracechild was stricken with childhood polio when she was about 12, LeVang said. “She was in an iron lung, and had a full body cast for about a year.” Though she had mobility problems, she never wanted her disability to define her. “She went to great lengths to make sure that didn’t happen,” her nephew said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in social welfare from California State University, Humboldt, and a master’s in education from California State University, San Bernardino. She worked as a social worker and a teacher before joining the burgeoning disability rights movement in 1981, when she went to work for Resources for Independent Living in Sacramento.
“She found her true calling there,” LeVang said. “She found something that she felt was noble and necessary and honorable, and she put everything into it.”
Gracechild became a familiar and potent voice on a wide variety of issues, helping to organize protest rallies and other events designed to fight cuts in programs that affected disabled people, senior citizens and poor families.
She advocated for better public accommodations, worker’s rights, subsidized child care and universal health care. In 1998, she ran a quixotic race for the state Assembly against Sacramento’s current mayor, Darrell Steinberg. She lost badly, but received endorsements from several powerful entities, including the Service Employees International Union.
She marched and spoke on behalf of rights for hospital patients, farmworkers, teachers, janitors and workers who care for people with physical and developmental disabilities. She was arrested several times for “civil disobedience,” said LeVang.
“Frances always took the side of the underdog,” said Chris Jensen, who worked with Gracechild for the past decade at Resources for Independent Living. “She never backed away from a fight and could be tough when she needed to be. But she would be more than happy to have a beer with you later. Her philosophy was ‘Be hard on the policy, not the person.’ ”
Mayor Steinberg called Gracechild, his former political opponent, a friend and a force for good.
“Frances was a steadfast champion for people without a strong voice in the political process,” he said. “She helped thousands of people by fighting for in-home supportive services during years when that life-saving program was at great risk.”
About two months ago, Gracechild took a medical leave from RIL, Jensen said. She was supposed to come back, but she developed a serious blood condition that took her life on June 5.
“There are so many people, me included, who are heartbroken by this news,” said Marty Omoto of the California Disability Community Action Network. “Her life and what she did and meant will always be remembered.”
Gracechild’s memorial service will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Friday in the Secretary of State’s auditorium at 1500 11th St. The service is open to the public.