When you talk to Kathy Cameron about her late husband Tony Young, her love and admiration for him is contagious: “If you got to know Tony, you were going to be friends with him for the rest of your life. Everyone wanted to know him and spend time with him.”
Kathy met Tony in the 1990s while working for the National Council on Aging (NCOA) where she now holds the role of Senior Director for the Center for Healthy Aging. Back then, Tony was called to serve on a NCOA advisory council Kathy was leading, a council organized to look at the connections between aging and disabilities for long-term support. “I was immediately drawn to Tony’s intelligence, his wit, and his passion for helping people,” Kathy reflects on those early encounters, “and I thought he was good looking,” she adds with a warm laugh.
Beyond Tony’s passion, wit, and good looks, there was something else that brought him to this advisory council. On August 16, 1970, an 18 year-old Tony and his friend headed to Ocean City to ride some morning waves and grab lunch by the beach. As lunchtime approached, when Tony caught what he decided would be his last wave of the day, the force of the wave slammed Tony straight into the ocean floor. After the wave passed, Tony’s friend found him floating motionless, at which point Tony looked up and said, “I can’t move anything.”
Later that day, Tony was given the news that he was paralyzed, wouldn’t walk again, and would have only partial use of his arms and hands. From that day forward, he would live with quadriplegia.
Tony’s life was forever changed. As his nephew Anthony Cameron wrote in a college essay, “It would have been very easy for Tony to just give up and be totally dependent on his family.”
Yet two decades later, when Kathy met Tony on the NCOA advisory council, she quickly learned this about him: “Tony believed he was one of the fortunate ones. He had a significant disability, but he recognized he had the advantages of family, of education, and of job opportunities. He wanted everyone with disabilities to live their lives to the fullest even if they didn’t have these advantages.”
This spirit of gratitude and service was reflected throughout Tony’s entire life. In college, after he noticed a lack of handicapped parking spaces and facility accessibility, he spent those years advocating on behalf of students and people living with disabilities. After college, he helped establish and served as the executive director for The ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia (ECNV), a community resource that seeks to end dependence by empowering people with disabilities to live independently. During his illustrious career, Tony was Chair of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities and co-led the disability community’s efforts to pass the Ticket to Work legislation that protects the benefits of people living with disabilities seeking employment and self-sufficiency.
Yet even with his “never-ending positive attitude,” accomplishments, and perseverance, “There were times he would get frustrated,” Kathy recalls. “A lot of that frustration stemmed from people’s perceptions of people with disabilities, mostly perceptions about what they can and cannot do.”
Zoè Davis, a recent graduate of Yorktown Highschool, is all too familiar with these, and many other, perceptions: “Personal perception influences just about everything in life,” Zoè says. “I never learned self-love. And as a gay, disabled, Black woman, I wish I could’ve learned it at a young age.”
Zoè was born with sickle cell anemia disease, a complex inherited blood disorder that causes acute and chronic complications as well as compromised immunity. “Prior to COVID, I always had to take precautions in order to protect myself, but now, I’m even more cautious, and sometimes very scared, to be very honest.” As Zoè finished high school and worked as a cashier at a grocery store during the pandemic, she learned a vital lesson: “I believe being an advocate for yourself and other people is a necessity in life.” For Zoè, self advocacy means sometimes saying “no” to friends who want to hang out, or calling out of work when she isn’t feeling well because people living with sickle cell anemia are at a much higher risk of developing severe complications from COVID infection.
However, much like Tony, Zoè’s advocacy doesn’t end with herself. Since the age of 7, Zoè has attended a summer camp for children and teenagers living with sickle cell anemia. During her high school years, Zoè had the opportunity to be a leader and teach at the camp. As a young Black queer woman, she was involved in a number of activities that center LGBTQ+ voices: participating in school board meetings, signing petitions, and attending virtual and in-person marches advocating for education equity, gender identity, and civil and voter rights.
Through these experiences, and a lifetime of perseverance, Zoè’s self-love has never been stronger: “I am a proud, out disabled lesbian who has so much to contribute to society, and I am deserving of every good thing that comes my way – just as I am.”
Kathy echoes this affirmation: “We are all unique individuals. We can all make unique contributions to this world. We shouldn’t think about the negative things other people say, but instead think about our differences as a positive.”
More than just shared sentiments, Kathy and Zoè also share a new bond born out of Tony’s life and legacy. “Another aspect of his work that he really loved was mentoring students and helping students advocate for themselves and their independence,” Kathy says. To carry on this love of disability advocacy and education, Kathy started a scholarship fund at the Community Foundation in Tony’s name, explaining, “This would be the perfect way to honor his passion of helping young people with disabilities on their career paths.”
In 2022, Zoè was selected as the Tony Young Memorial Scholarship recipient. Every year after scholarships are awarded, scholarship fundholders and recipients are given the opportunity to connect. Kathy and Zoè had a video call, and as she talks about Zoè, Kathy has that same admiration in her voice as when she talks about Tony: “Tony would be so proud of Zoè as the scholarship recipient. She embodies how he lived his life. She’s very positive and has overcome so much, but it’s not stopping her from moving forward and making a difference in people’s lives.”
When asked what the scholarship means to her, Zoè said, “I feel so blessed to be awarded this scholarship to help carry on Tony’s legacy. I’ve been a ‘fighter’ and advocate all of my life because of my sickle cell anemia, and this scholarship not only recognizes my academic achievement, but it also helps amplify disabled/’different’ voices in spaces where our stories and voices need to be heard and expanded. This scholarship validates my voice – disabled-LGBTQ+ voices – and I hope to pay it forward as I make my way in the world. I will continue to share this scholarship blessing, as well as my story with others to help inspire and empower.”
In Anthony Cameron’s essay, he writes that before Tony passed, when asked for some final advice for people with or without disabilities, Tony reiterated his own life story: “Follow whatever passion you desire, and turn life’s setbacks into something positive–something others can look at and make them believe they can accomplish their goals too.”
As Zoè starts her college journey to become a veterinarian, and Kathy continues to volunteer with The ENDependence Center, it’s clear Tony’s words and legacy will carry on for generations to come.
It’s no wonder everyone who met Tony wanted to be his friend.