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TIPTON, Mo. – It took years of tests for a 9-year-old mid-Missouri girl to be diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. After doctors figured out what was going on inside her body, she decided to help fund research that could help her and others suffering from the debilitating disease.

To understand why arthritis research is so important to Graci Diggs, you need to know her story.

"Graci was always a very happy and very outgoing little girl, even from the day she was born," said her mom, Anna Diggs.

But at the age of 2 she started breaking out with strange rashes. They would come and go, and doctors told her mom she had normal childhood viruses and they would eventually go away.

The rashes finally stopped, but Graci started getting infections, and would vomit frequently.

Graci woke up one Sunday morning two years later with a swollen knee. Her mom says it was three times its normal size, red, and hot to the touch. Graci was rushed to Urgent Care, and when doctors were unable to find a problem, she was taken to her family's physician. He told the family to wait a few days and watch it.

By Thursday Graci couldn't walk, and she was referred to an orthopedist. X-rays and blood work turned up nothing, so she was sent to a rheumatologist.

"At this time Graci was pretty sick. She was having bouts of vomiting and diarrhea, she had been fighting off other infections in her bladder also. Her little body was under attack and even the specialists were scratching their heads," said Anna.

One doctor, suspecting Graci may have a tumor in her knee, suggested an MRI.

"Tumor. That meant the 'C' word… cancer," said Anna.

Five months later, Graci was finally diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.

"Yes, arthritis in a 4-year-old," said Anna.

Graci's body was responsive to treatment and physical and occupational therapy, so she was taken off medication. But two years later her knee swelled again, and after more tests, injections, and surgery, she was left unable to walk, using a wheelchair to get around.

Now in second grade, Graci knew she was different from her friends, and she was having trouble keeping up with them.

"She was slipping into a depression quickly," said Anna.

Anna started researching JRA, and stumbled upon the Jingle Bell Run in nearby Columbia, Mo. Graci was excited about the thought of participating and raising money, and two months later had collected more than $3,000, earning her a plaque as the second-place fundraiser in 2012.

The following year she was asked to be the run's child honoree. She accepted the challenge, and upped her fundraising goal by $1,000.

To meet her goal of raising $4,000, she decided to start "jingling in June" with kickball and volleyball tournaments, selling St. Louis Cardinals tickets for Arthritis Day at the Park, and started making and selling an assortment of jingle-themed items. Graci exceeded her goal last year by $500.

This year Graci found herself in a rut. The kickball tournament wasn't going to work because of other obligations, so she and her family traveled to National JRA Conference in Colorado for ideas. They decided to host an aluminum can drive, and "Cans for a Cure" was created.

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Through a Facebook page, Graci's mom invited people to drive by their house and throw their empty cans onto their front lawn. On Friday, July 12, 2014 Graci's front yard started to fill up.

"We had people throwing cans out of their windows, people dropped off small bags, some dropped off large trash bags full. We even had large seed sacks full," said Anna.

Anna says their garage is now 75 percent full with empty cans. They hope to continue collecting until this year's Jingle Bell Run in November.

This weekend Graci will have a booth at the Tipton Towne Square Days craft show. She hopes to bring JRA awareness to surrounding communities and will sell hair bows and loom bracelets. She'll also be selling cans of soda, with the hope that those cans will be donated back to her when they are empty.

Graci is now in remission and thriving. She loves playing softball, volleyball, swimming, and riding her bike.

"She doesn't want JRA to define her and she will tell you JRA isn't going to keep her from doing whatever she wants," said Anna.

If you would like to donate to the Arthritis Foundation, donations can be made to the Columbia, Mo. or St. Louis Jingle Bell Runs.

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