To see Tracy Quisenberry in action, leading an Icing Smiles event, is truly an inspiration. Her purpose, passion and authentic leadership is evident from the moment you walk in. Literally. She mans the registration tables to greet her “Sugar Angels,” then walks the crowds connecting with her volunteers, until she takes the stage to celebrate their contributions and the joy created for children in need.
GloForward celebrates Tracy this month as our new Woman of Grace. Her courage in facing challenges, flexibility, authenticity, and dedication to her purpose has galvanized a volunteer force of more than 12,000 bakers and brought smiles to tens of thousands of critically ill children.
As you might expect, there’s a great story behind the creation of the non-profit Icing Smiles, one that is inspiring, heartwarming, and life-affirming in many respects. For three years, I have had the privilege of being part of that Icing Smiles story as a member of its communications team and have been inspired by Tracy first hand.
Since its founding in 2010, the Baltimore-based nonprofit’s mission has been to provide elaborate dream cakes to kids with critical illness. Tracy does an amazing job chronicling its sweet and endearing journey from a single cake in her kitchen, to a national network of “Sugar Angels” ready to answer the call when a family of a sick child needs a birthday cake.
This woman, mother, and international tax professional who, once confronted with the chronic illness of her own child, sought to make a big change in her life. A change that would manifest after realizing the impact a single cake made in the world of her sick child. For this reason alone, Tracy exemplifies a Woman of Grace. Her story takes on even greater significance, however, when we learn the whole of it.
I had the chance to catch up with Tracy recently on Zoom when she was providing some inspirational advice to a newly-formed network of age 50-plus individuals looking to enhance their lives with second acts. The group, called This Point Forward, is a mentorship organization for men and women seeking purpose.
As she spoke, comments of encouragement and admiration came in from the participants on our video call. They were impressed with not just her grit, but her wit, and the grace she possessed to be able to take the learning experience of her son’s illness and offer something inspirational to other families with critically ill children.
For me, her authenticity struck a chord, as did her willingness to be capital “R” real, even when it was sad and uncomfortable for her to do so. This became increasingly evident in a later one-on-one call that I had with Tracy when she revealed the part of her story that doesn’t appear on the site’s mission page; the part that she demurs to tell, but understands is especially important for women to hear.
“I do feel like there’s a significant need out there, for women who are willing, to be able to be real about their stories and admit where they made mistakes, and own the failure that they have had because [now] they have turned it into something else.”
Not All Rainbows & Unicorns
Tracy reflects back to 2003, when the second of her two premature children was born. Although Justin, she says, was seemingly healthy at birth being over six pounds and scoring high on the Apgar scale, effects of his abbreviated gestation would arrive as soon as he hit the ground crawling. Justin quickly developed pneumonia after his very first crawl, which sent Tracy and her husband into a two-year cycle of Justin either having pneumonia or being on an antibiotic to fight it off.
“At the time I was the International Tax Director for Marriott International and I was also Justin’s primary caregiver.” She says the day that changed everything came quite ordinarily when she was on a very tight deadline for the completion of the Ritz-Carlton’s tax return. She gets the call every daycare mother dreads, ‘Your son has a fever; you need to come get him.” Tracy’s two worlds collided leaving her feeling that she was either going to let down her family or her employer.
After what she describes as a, “… complete, mascara-down-the-cheeks breakdown on her boss’s desk,” her employer suggested she exercise her ability to take a three-month family leave. It was those next three months that would put her on a path that she would later describe as a runaway train that she needed to jump on board lest it run her over.
While being home for that time, Tracy would discover a new passion—cake decorating. Knowing her family had been through so much, she says, she just wanted to do something special to celebrate her son Justin’s upcoming birthday. And there was more to be happy about. Her son’s illnesses were finally officially diagnosed as the result of a compromised auto-immune disorder, common in many preemies. His health began to improve with the help of a simple vaccine making that part of her journey all the more manageable.
With life on a better track, Tracy, with eyes to become Howard County’s next Martha Stewart, set out to make the most awesome custom birthday cake for Justin. The fact that she had no clue what she was getting herself into was not going to stop her. Off to the craft store in her minivan with the family’s Golden Doodle in tow, she went to buy all the trappings of a pastry chef in the making.
The result was—in her words, “Ridiculous.” What was intended to look like a rubber duckie in a tub, she says, came out looking more like a “pineapple with a beak” cake. Despite what she felt was a flawed first effort, she walked away from the experience changed.
“But the best part of it was, the kids loved it!,” she explains. “So that really sparked my passion. Every child that walked into that room went straight for the cake with a big smile on their face and they could not keep their hands off of it.”
Given that her family could only eat so many cakes and had just so many birthdays, Tracy knew that to continue to pursue her passion, she needed another outlet for her cakes. With a desire to give them away, she turned toward families who, like hers, were experiencing the chronic or critical illness of a child. Soon after, Icing Smiles was born.
“You would think by this point it would be all rainbows and unicorns,” she says, “but it wasn’t.”
Indeed the train started rolling, but her marriage, she learned, was not on board. This is the part, that to this day, makes Tracy emotional. This journey, this new-found passion, this true love and concern for others, had created a conflict in her marriage. Tracy’s decision to continue to devote upwards of 60 hours a week to Icing Smiles was not part of the family’s original plan.
“I fully understood and respected my husband’s concerns. He thought he was married to someone who had a master’s degree in international tax, who could make six figures easily, and I was effectively choosing to volunteer 60 hours a week. At the same time I was building something that I believed was my calling, that served others and that my kids, I hoped, could take pride in.”
“And I knew that I was looking at five hard years of getting this thing off the ground,” she says. She knew if she was going to continue, she would once again need to make some very tough choices —heartbreaking choices. She would once again be required to draw from her reserves of grace and strength to make a way forward.
“Ultimately, I knew that the boundaries placed on the support I received were going to make it impossible to continue. I truly felt Icing Smiles was my calling, and if I wanted it, I was going to be doing it alone,” she says, the gravity of the situation still hanging heavy among the weight of her words.
Her partner’s desire for her to scale back was as good as asking her to quit as the organization was in its infancy and there was no one to pick up the vision and run with it. “It was such a part of me, I felt like I was being asked to change who I am. It may have been easier to ask me to cut off my right arm.”
For Tracy, that just wasn’t an option. She and her husband would evidently divorce. Proverbially, the whistle blew loud at the station and the tracks cleared for Icing Smiles to continue on its journey.
Hope … & Faith
Truly, the effect this decision would have on her children for the rest of their lives was a most bitter pill among the sweet icing that surrounded her life, but Tracy believed in herself, her new calling, and in her own children enough to forge ahead.
“I was building what I hoped was a sense of commitment to community in my kids, and it was building something that I knew was benefiting others,” says Tracy. “I believed that I was put here to serve, and I just found a really unique way to do it.”
This decision was not only excruciating from the point of view of being a mother, but also from a woman of faith, she adds.
“I still question, did I do the right thing for my kids because as a woman that’s what your focus is—it tends to be everybody but yourself—there’s still a part of me that says my decision was pretty selfish. But I have a girlfriend who’s been very involved with Icing Smiles who said, ‘Tracy, had you stayed, we would not exist and you’ve got to keep that in mind.’”
At the end of the day, Tracy says she understands that and knows that the woman she became would not exist either.
Full Steam Ahead
Today, Tracy no longer needs to manage the day-to-day decisions required by the organization, having stepped back to allow others to step forward. She is, however, getting ready for the next decade of Icing Smiles development, and using her well-honed leadership skills to blaze new trails amidst a pandemic. And while the virus did snag the normal delivery operations for a bit, Tracy used the downtime judiciously.
“As things slowed down, I used that as a time to challenge our team to look internally and ask, ‘What are our pain points? What are the things that are working? What’s not working? And if we had to start all over again, what would we do differently?’”
“This pretty much turned everything on its head at Icing Smiles,” she says with a sense of enthusiasm. The same enthusiasm that brought her here also took her to this place in life where she understands the importance of inspiring others.
The results definitely seem well worth it. To date, Icing Smiles has a network of more than 12,000 volunteers and has delivered more than 22,000 cakes. It also has grown its outreach globally with chapters in Canada and The Netherlands.
“If I can find a way to motivate others using my story, especially the hard parts of this journey, that’s —no pun intended—the icing on the cake!”
If GloForward's Woman of Grace, Tracy Quisenberry, has inspired you, as well - learn more about Icing Smiles’ mission and how you can get involved at icingsmiles.org.
For even more inspiration, read about our first GloForward Woman of Grace, Silver Kim, here. And nominate the women who have inspired you with their special kind of grace in the form below.
Nominate a Woman of Grace in your life that you'd like to honor here.