Twenty-four years ago, doctors had a rather grim prediction for a then-baby Grace Strobel, one her parents, Linda and Jeff, refused to accept. Born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21, Grace’s family was told their daughter would be faced with a lifetime of challenges.
From day one, the Strobels were committed to showing the world just what their beautiful baby girl was capable of, and embarked on a journey to make that happen. Fast-forward, and not only is Grace defying the odds set for her all those years ago, she’s living a life of purpose, breaking down perceptions and barriers, and leading by example.
Grace’s mantra, to “keep following your dreams,” is something she continues to do each and every day. Her commitment to paving the way for other young people with disabilities is nothing short of amazing.
Having experienced what she describes as a “devastating” bullying experience in 2017, Grace turned her pain into purpose and created #TheGraceEffect, an informative and interactive presentation that aims to educate students and raise awareness for the everyday struggles people with disabilities face.
After a conversation with her mother, the two realized change needed to happen in order to prevent Grace’s friends and other people living with disabilities to have to endure similar experiences. Faced with the question of whether she wanted to do something to make a difference, the answer was simple.
“I wanted to share with students what it’s like to have struggles and to show how you can change someone’s life just by being kind and giving respect,” explains Grace.
What Grace and Linda could not have predicted was just how much of a change was about to happen. Their research for #TheGraceEffect would lead Grace down a completely new and unexpected path.
These days Grace is making waves in the fashion industry as a model for various brands, as well as being named the first U.S. model with Down syndrome for a skincare line. As brand ambassador for Obagi’s SKINclusion campaign, Grace is showing the world her abilities.
All of her hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed. This past September, Grace was part of a group of women chosen to receive the Women of Achievement Award in her hometown of St. Louis. The prestigious award is the oldest ongoing program in the area whose sole mission is to honor and recognize the volunteer efforts of women.
At BELLA, we wanted to learn more about Grace and the ways in which she is showing others how to rethink what is possible. We sat down with her for a very humbling and heartwarming conversation.
As a young girl, what were some of your aspirations?
My younger sister, Lanie, inspired me. She is a dancer, and I always wanted to be on stage and in the limelight, just like her. I love being on stage!
Against the odds, you’re breaking down stereotypes and showing the world your abilities. How does it feel to know you’re setting an example for others?
It feels awesome! I think my modeling and speaking show people what is possible and help others to believe in themselves.
Oftentimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand, especially kids, which is what happened to you in that lunchroom back in 2017. Can you share what was going through your mind?
About three years ago I was working in the lunchroom at school, and some kids started making fun of me. When they laughed at me that day I felt alone and hated. I cried so hard I couldn’t stop; I died inside. And that is when I decided I wanted to make a difference.
Out of your pain, you created #TheGraceEffect. Tell us about the interactive presentation.
#TheGraceEffect is a 45-minute presentation I give at schools that teaches kids about having struggles, kindness, respect, and belonging. We work on activities with the students for balance, vision, and fine motor skills, like buttoning up their shirts with gloves on.
We also talk about having low tone, which is when your muscles are loose and it takes more energy to move your body and those muscles. We call the kids up and we say, sit down on this regular chair and now get up. Then we say sit down on this beanbag chair and put this backpack on, cross your arms and now get up. It’s hard for them; they struggle. Low tone is not about strength, but about energy—the energy to move your body. We also ask them to look through binoculars and walk across the top of a BOSU ball, which is hard.
It takes courage to stand up in front of a room full of people. How does it feel when you’re doing these interactive presentations?
The first one I did I felt really nervous and I didn’t want to do it. I started crying when I saw the kids coming in, but I went up there and I did it. And now I love speaking to students. It’s exciting for me and it’s fun.
What do you hope the students take away from listening and participating?
That no matter who you are, we all want the same things—to be valued, to be respected, and to feel good about ourselves.
How have these presentations helped you?
Sometimes our biggest sorrows become our greatest achievements. My presentations have given me a voice–it’s about making people feel valued, represented, and included. I feel proud!
You’ve also started modeling. How did the opportunity come about?
When I was researching for the presentation, I saw another girl with Down syndrome that was a model and I asked my mom if I could be a model too. She said, “I don’t see why not—let’s do this, Grace!” So we started on this amazing journey that brought me here today. I was also inspired by Karen Gaffney and Lauren Potter from “Glee.”
Last October you were named Obagi’s SKINclusion ambassador. How did the partnership come about?
In 2018, I had just started in the world of modeling and had no one representing me. My mom tried many agencies but I couldn’t get signed. Fortunately, I had already appeared on the “Today” show and had several national stories about me, so my mom became my agent.
She saw the Obagi campaign with Priyanka Chopra and sent a letter to the company’s president, Jamie Castle, along with my story and photos. We later found out when she opened our envelope she told her staff, “I want Grace to be in our campaign.” When we got the response from Obagi, my mom and I were jumping up and down screaming!
I want others to live unapologetically and feel good about themselves, and Obagi’s mission fuels that and gives me a voice to make a change. I’m working on some more exciting initiatives with them that will be announced in early October—stay tuned on my Instagram page!
Do you think the fashion and beauty industry is starting to become more diverse and inclusive?
I think doors are starting to open more, and I love it. But my family and I would love to see more people with disabilities being represented. With exposure, we can create change because we are all part of this amazing, diverse humanity.
Along with Obagi, you’ve also worked with brands like Alivia. What others would you like to work with?
I’d love to model for Louis Vuitton, Hollister, Calvin Klein, and even Versace.
Congratulations on the Women in Achievement award. What does this mean to you?
I’m so honored, and it means so much. It feels so good to turn pain into purpose and help others.
What’s up next for you?
I would like to keep modeling and speaking, and I’d also like to get into commercials.
If you could give your younger self a bit of advice what would it be?
Keep following your dreams! Go for it and never give up.
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