Grace Strobel from St. Louis, Missouri
Photo courtesy Grace Strobel

Grace Strobel is on a mission to teach the world about inclusion, friendship, self-worth, and respect. Those topics are both natural and challenging for the gentle 23-year-old from Wildwood. Grace was born with Down syndrome, a condition marked by a third copy of chromosome 21. Although doctors gave Grace’s family little hope for her future, she’s exceeding expectations. In the past year, Grace has addressed thousands, from school presentations to the keynote speech at Funding Futures Chicago, which raises money for cognition research for Down syndrome. Her modeling career took off last winter with two runway shows for fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh. She’s been invited to walk in New York City Fashion Week this fall. Her social media star is rising, too: 16,571 followers on Facebook and 1,277 on Instagram.

“Dignity and love are not ‘special needs,’ ” she says

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What would you like others to know about Down syndrome?
I have Down syndrome, but Down syndrome does not define who I am.

You’ve delivered your #TheGraceEffect presentation to thousands of students. What was the most challenging part about creating it?
Practicing and rehearsing! I have to work hard at looking at the audience, speaking slowly, and having lots of energy and enthusiasm. I rehearse every week. I want to get better and better.

What are the most common reactions students have to your presentation?
My biggest joy is when students want to give me a hug, a high five, or just say hello and tell me how much they liked the presentation.

What do you hope changes due to your presentations?
I hope students start to see what it’s like to have a disability. And that they understand even though we might look a little different, we all want and need the same things—to be included, believed in, loved, and respected. We all have gifts and talents.

What made you want to speak out about bullying?
I was working at a school lunchroom when some students made fun of me struggling to open up fruit cups and milk cartons for them. That’s something that’s very hard for me to do, but I was doing it. I want students to understand how painful it is to be made fun of, especially when you’re trying your hardest. I then felt so bad about myself, I cried all day and couldn’t stop.

What is most fun about modeling?
It’s amazing when people recognize me from photos on Facebook and magazines.

What’s the hardest thing about modeling?
Doing a long shoot without eating.

What are your hobbies? Favorite movies or TV shows? Best colors?
Hanging out with my friends is awesome; I live for those days. I also like to work out and cook. My favorite movies are Elf, Uncle Buck, Kicking and Screaming, and Freaky Friday. My favorite TV show is Fuller House, and my best color is blue.”

If you could snap your fingers to change the world, what would you change first?
Get rid of the “R” word. It dehumanizes people and is not funny at all.