Meet Grace Strobel!
I am Grace Strobel and I was born with Down syndrome but Down syndrome does not define me. I am a model, a speaker, an athlete and an advocate.
What are your thoughts on fashion as a language?
When I was growing up, my mom always made sure I looked good- that my hair was styled and I wore clothes that fit me well and I felt like I was putting my best self out there. I think fashion has the ability to make you feel good about yourself because you care how you present yourself.
This helped build my confidence and self esteem. Whatever it is that makes you feel beautiful and good about yourself, whether it is clothes, makeup, sports, having a special talent or gift- its important that you do it. For me it’s about belonging, feeling confident and valued.
What is The Grace Effect?
In my presentation called #TheGraceEffect- I talk to students about some of the challenges that people with Down syndrome face. We do simulated exercises in class with them to show what it might feel like to have some of these challenges. I talk about fine motor skills -doing controlled movements with your hands like buttoning buttons, zipping zippers, opening small containers. I talk to them about low tone – the amount of energy needed to move your muscles. Having low tone means you need to exert up
to 30% more energy to move your body (think running, walking, walking up stairs, putting books in a book bag, even speaking!) than someone without low tone.
I also talk to them about balance and vision- two other things that are often challenging for people with Down syndrome. We have them walk over bosu balls and they can actually feel what its like to have balance issues. The students love these exercises and are blown away. They come away from my presentations with a whole new perspective and understanding of what we face daily. Yet despite these challenges, I also talk to them about overcoming obstacles and achieving. My life is life everyone else’s- I have a career, friends, I am building independence, I have a faith community and goals that I am constantly working on.
I have had to work very hard everyday at achieving them. There are always setbacks, failures and disappointments but if you keep pushing through and forward moving, no matter the pace you will keep achieving. I started reading sight words when I was 3 years old and by the time I was 5 yrs old- I was tested at a 2nd grade level. I earned a purple belt in Tae Kwon Do, totally unmodified, I joined the local YMCA swim team, practiced and competed like everyone else. Although I was not the fastest swimmer- it was a chance for me to challenge my abilities and be a part of a team. It was awesome.
I am an altar server and lector at my church, and I also run 2.5 miles everyday. Despite having a stutter and language challenges- I worked extremely hard and became a speaker. Every step of the way I had people who believed in me, worked with me and gave me a chance to succeed and it changed my life.
Do you have any words of reassurance to offer for people who are being bullied?
Being bullied and made fun of was one of the most humiliating and demeaning things that has ever happened to me. It cut me to the core and cut into my self-esteem. When my mom was trying to help me through this time, she talked to me about people being afraid of what they don’t understand. And asked me if I wanted to help students start understanding the challenges people with Down syndrome face. So that is when we started talking about creating a presentation I would give that would help people understand and remove fear associated with someone who was different.
It was a long journey. I researched with my mom for 2 months everything we could about Down syndrome. Then practiced 4-6 days a week for 7 months before I gave that first GraceEffect presentation. Lots of hard work, blood, sweat and tears! But it allowed me to heal and turn my pain into purpose and help others.
My mom told me this: Sometimes our biggest sorrows can turn into our greatest achievements. And I can very much see that now. Another big factor was that of forgiveness. You can’t move forward until you forgive and that is a very hard thing to do when you’ve been hurt deeply. When you forgive, you are not changing the past but are changing your future.
How did you start your speaking career?
The first job I got was working in the lunchroom at a school. It was actually my school, the school I had gone to. The lunchroom was full of kids talking and eating. The thing I loved most about this job was helping people. I loved feeling responsible, capable and that I belonged.
One day, some kids who were eating lunch asked me for help opening their fruit cups and milk cartons, that was part of my job. Having Down syndrome- I really have to work hard at my dexterity. Those kinds of tasks are harder for me, but I can do them. I was standing by the lunch table, trying to open a fruit cup, when I realized the kids I was helping were laughing. It suddenly felt wrong.
Why were they laughing? What was funny? Then I realized. They were laughing at me. They didn’t need help to open their food at all, they had asked me so they could watch me struggle. I started to feel sick, like I was going to throw up. I felt dizzy. My face went white. The lunchroom was always a loud place, but now all the sounds seemed to mix together into a roar. I ran back to the kitchen.
The world blurred, I felt the tears well up inside of me and I burst out crying. When you make fun of someone, it only takes a few seconds. For the kids laughing at me, it was over. For me, it wasn’t over. Back home, I sat on my bed and my mom sat next to me, letting me rock gently while I sobbed.
I tried to stop thinking about what happened, when I closed my eyes I heard the kids laughing, I could see them pointing at me, like a horrible movie in my head. It hurt so much to remember, but I couldn’t stop remembering. I’ve always been a positive, up-beat person, but now I felt so much sadness, like there were hands on my shoulders, pushing me down. I kept waiting to feel like myself again, but I couldn’t. There was an awful twisting pain in my stomach that I had never felt before.
I felt scared, alone and for the first time, I felt hated. A part of me died that day. I wanted to stay in my room forever and never come out. I cried for four days. There are days when I feel like I’ll never fully understand it. That day sitting on my bed my mom was helping me through the pain.
She told me sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Maybe I could help them understand. I had made presentations before. Maybe I could make one about Down syndrome. I wanted to make a difference. I made a decision to start working toward changing perceptions of people with disabilities.
That was when everything changed for me. I co-created a presentation called #TheGraceEffect to talk about kindness, belonging, overcoming obstacles and one’s own worth. I wanted to share with students what it is like to have struggles, and I wanted to have them experience them as I do both physically and emotionally. I also wanted to show how you can change someone’s life just by being kind and giving respect. I challenge students to look beyond what they see and seek kindness, respect and dignity for all individuals.
Why is your presentation important to you?
My presentation is important to me because it hurts me to see someone laughed at, not included or talked about and I wanted to change that.
How many students have you spoken to?
I’ve spoken to over 3,000 students already and I love getting the chance to change a new generation of minds and hearts and encourage others to seek kindness, respect and to value others. If you judge people, you have no time to love them. I know that I can be strong and be a champion of hope and resiliency. I was once wounded by being made fun of, and now it feels incredible to turn hurt into purpose.
I love that I get a chance to break down barriers, change perceptions, and seek understanding and respect. About a year after I started speaking, my confidence was back and I wanted to take my message to a more visible platform, so guess what I did? I embarked on a modeling career.
What’s your favorite part of your presentation?
My favorite part is the role playing because it teaches the kids about struggles.
How did you get into modeling?
When I was researching to make #TheGraceEffect I saw another model with Down syndrome that was a model so I asked my mom if I could be a model too, and 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.
What do you like about modeling?
I like modeling because it makes me feel good about myself and it helps others to believe in themselves.
What’s the hardest part about modeling?
Getting my eyebrows plucked!!
How does it feel to be a model or role model for others?
It feels incredible- I think my modeling and speaking show what it possible.
What does all this exposure mean to you?
It’s a dream come true because it gives me a voice. It’s about making people feel valued, respected and like they belong.
How do you stay fit/healthy?
I run 2.5 almost everyday, work out and eat a pretty clean diet, very high in vegetables and protein. I still eat sweets and have fun but keep them to special occasions!
What do you like to do for fun?
I love hanging out with friends, texting, going to the movies and listening to music.
Are you ever nervous modeling?
No, I love it!
What would you like to share with others that want to follow their dreams?
Believe in yourself. Work hard. Have confidence and never give up!
What do you want to do in the future?
I want to keep on modeling and speaking and have people RETHINK what is possible.
What changes do you and your family hope to see in the beauty world?
When I look through a magazine I don’t see people like myself. I think sometimes people with disabilities sometimes feel invisible and not recognized. We want the same thing everyone else wants: we want to be seen, heard and valued. Through exposure we can create change and through change we can become more understanding and less fearful of the unknown. I’d love to see more people with disabilities represented in the fashion and beauty world!
We met Grace through Jovana Mullins, Co-Founder & CCO of ALIVIA which is a direct-to-consumer social impact brand that makes beautiful clothing inspired by the expressions of creators with developmental disabilities!