When she was four years old, Courtney Thomas’ parents explained to her that her older brother Tensley was not like everyone else. His autism was the reason that he could not speak and that his mental capacity was that of a young child. For the next two decades, Courtney experienced first-hand the physical, emotional, and financial hardships of caring for a disabled person. Both her parents worked in low-income jobs, and there was limited assistance for the disabled or their families.
Courtney always thought it unfair that Tensley would have to live a life much more limited than her own and she vowed to one day make a difference for him and other disabled people. For that, she had to do well in high school and go to college. In 2005, she reached that goal and became the first person in her family to attend college. She moved from Columbus, GA to Athens to major in English at UGA, and enrolled in the Honors Program, from which she received a CURO Apprenticeship.
Almost immediately, she started work as a CURO apprentice with Dr. Barbara McCaskill, who had received a grant for her project Freedom on Film, which is part of the Civil Rights Digital Library Initiative. For this project, Courtney documented the lesser-known civil rights activities of residents of small Georgia towns during the Civil Rights Era. As Courtney says: “This experience of researching the overlooked accomplishments of citizens who deserve respect and recognition fueled my dedication to utilizing my intellectual abilities for the good of society.”
Helping the underserved, is second nature to Courtney and it was for that reason that her first trip out of the country was to one of the most impoverished districts in Lima, Peru. With financial assistance from the Honors International Scholars Program she volunteered her services at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying and the Destitute. There she worked with children and adults, all severely physically or mentally challenged, and who had been abandoned by their families. Despite difficulties with the language and Courtney found strength in her past: “I was reacquainted with a feeling that I had not experienced in over a decade – the sadness of realizing that you cannot break into a disabled child’s impenetrable mental world. Nonetheless, similar to how my parents and I grew to believe that Tensley recognized our presence and our love for him, I truly feel that the children I helped could sense the presence of someone who cares. Urban decay plagued La Victoria and appeared to diminish any possibility of hope. Yet inside Mother Theresa’s, I learned to conquer the challenge of finding and maintaining hope in even the bleakest situation.”
Having graduated from UGA, Courtney was accepted as a Master’s in Public Policy student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. There she will focus on developing skills to write policy for the disabled so that she can come back to Georgia to make good on her childhood resolve: to develop health care policy geared toward people with disabilities and their families.
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