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Tracy Jo Russell of Kamloops, ambassador for Community Living BC’s “Start with Hi” initiative.

A conversation with Tracy Jo Russell of Kamloops is a profound lesson in what it means to be "differently-abled." Engaging and passionate, Tracy Jo was a natural choice for ambassador for Community Living BC's "Start with Hi" initiative.

Launched province-wide in June 2009, the initiative is a reminder that acknowledging others by saying "Hi" helps make people feel included and makes it easier for them to ask for help if they feel threatened or unsafe.

Tracy Jo is one of six self-advocates featured in the multimedia campaign. She appears on the website ( www.startwithHi.ca), on posters and in a video. In addition to spreading the word in her hometown of Kamloops, Tracy Jo has visited Castlegar, Nelson and Trail. In Kelowna, she met with the mayor and local MLA to hand out posters and buttons to the public, and in Nelson, she appeared with the local hockey team, the Nelson Leafs.

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"I travel and fly by myself," she explains. "If I get lost, I ask someone to help me get unlost. You have to go past your own comfort zone if you want to do stuff."

Loneliness and isolation are common problems among individuals with developmental disabilities, says Tracy Jo. "I'm very lucky - I'm very outgoing, and I know how to make friends. But some people with disabilities don't know how to do that."

Many people aren't sure how to approach people with disabilities in their communities, which is one of the reasons Tracy Jo is so excited about sharing the initiative. "It's working already," she says. "People come up to me to say hello. Many people are afraid of the unknown, but if you just start with hello, you never know what might be next. If they don't respond, go on to the next person."

She feels very fortunate to have met and shared her message with many great people in her travels. "We're helping to educate the public that people with disabilities aren't much different than they are. We want to be able to work, to have a full-time job. When I was hired at Safeway eight-and-a-half years ago, I asked them not to treat me any differently than anybody else. My boss, Brendan Martin, saw that I could do the work and he hired me."

In 2006, says Tracy Jo, 45 people with developmental disabilities climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, all the way to the top. "We had one person in a wheelchair climb all the way to 19,000 feet. There's nothing you can't do if you put your mind to it. It just takes some people longer to get to where they need to be."

During the month of October, Tracy Jo and her fellow self-advocates will be sharing the "Start with Hi" message at events in their communities. "Don't be afraid to say hello," she says. "You never know - there might be a friend, right there in front of you."

October is Community Living Month, a celebration and acknowledgement of the gifts and talents that people with developmental disabilities bring to their communities. Throughout the province, celebrations and events are planned to recognize the hard work of individuals and families who create inclusive communities and opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. Visit Start with Hi's Facebook group for more details, www.facebook.com/Startwithhi

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Community Living BC

Minister's Message

The Honourable Rich Coleman Minister of Housing and Social Development

Every October, Community Living Month helps increase awareness about how all British Columbians can help build respectful communities that provide inclusive opportunities for everyone. Each of us relies on having options for work, school, recreational and social activities; these activities are important to our quality of life and feeling of belonging. Many people with developmental disabilities have a harder time making informal connections that help build a sense of belonging; they can be more socially isolated, and have fewer opportunities to be included. We ask you to join us in our commitment to build inclusive communities. During Community Living Month, help spread the word that through a simple act like saying "Hi", we can create communities which give adults with developmental disabilities more opportunities to fully participate and live independently. Great things can happen through small actions. We ask you to start with "Hi" and see what happens. Each of us relies on having options for work, school, recreational and social activities; these activities are important to our quality of life and feeling of belonging. Many people with developmental disabilities have a harder time making informal connections that help build a sense of belonging; they can be more socially isolated, and have fewer opportunities to be included. We ask you to join us in our commitment to build inclusive communities. During Community Living Month, help spread the word that through a simple act like saying "Hi", we can create communities which give adults with developmental disabilities more opportunities to fully participate and live independently. Great things can happen through small actions. We ask you to start with "Hi" and see what happens.

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