Radiant had a chance to sit down and speak with Grace Strobel, a 23-year-old woman who has accomplished quite a bit at a very young age. She’s a speaker, model and beauty skincare ambassador who still finds time to give her gifts and talents through volunteering. Oh, and she has Down syndrome. Grace has shared her story around her home state of Missouri through #TheGraceEffect, a presentation that explains what it is like to live with Down syndrome. As a devout Catholic, Grace leans heavily on her trust and faith in God to tackle her goals. Her mother Linda Strobel also joined us for this conversation to help us understand why a disability does not mean a person is limited from achieving those dreams.
Radiant: Grace has an amazing and inspirational story about the power of not allowing limitations to hold us back from our dreams. Can you and Grace share the importance of that?
Linda: Grace was born 23 years ago, and the atmosphere that she came into was dark and one of not being wanted or valued from many, most especially from the medical community. Her life was “predetermined” a few hours after birth — a child that would not be able to accomplish much and would be a burden to us. From that moment on, we decided to do everything we could to help her achieve her potential. We looked outside the box and started working on all aspects of her development; cognitive, language, physical, diet/health, independence and social. We had no idea how it would all turn out, but we just put our heads down, prayed constantly, charted our own path and worked hard every single day. We knew she would be faced with challenges, but we decided to go against conventional wisdom.
So from birth, Grace has been working — working hard on overcoming her challenges and capitalizing upon her strengths. She has this determination to overcome and doesn’t quit easily. Quick example: When we decided to make #TheGraceEffect presentation, it took us two months to research everything, another month to put it together, and then she practiced five days a week, several hours a day for six months to perfect it. It was the hardest thing we had done, especially because Grace struggles with a stutter, so working to remain fluent was an extra challenge. But she did it and has since spoken to over 3,000 students with incredible success. When she first started speaking, we were getting so many bookings we couldn’t keep up.
So you’ve got a girl who was made fun of by school aged-kids and decided to do something about that. Challenges, perseverance, courage. Now she gets up and talks to that same type of audience who once made fun of her, hundreds at a time, challenged by a stutter but tirelessly works to overcome it and still keeps wanting to show people what she is capable of. She’s a fighter and determined to show her gifts and talents God has given her.
We have always put the bar high for her, and pushed her beyond her comfort zone. We didn’t treat her like she was “different,” and I think that is why she keeps breaking barriers. No one should predetermine a life. Don’t bother with the nay-sayers. Plot your own course and pray daily that God’s hand gives you the direction and courage needed to keep going.
Radiant: Grace’s relationship with God is very strong and is a big part of how she lives her life. How has that shaped her view and how she approaches what she wants to accomplish in her life?
Linda: When you meet Grace you quickly see her personality. Grace brings to the world joy, perseverance, unconditional love, light and true lessons in forgiveness. She doesn’t judge people, she doesn’t hold grudges, and she brings out the best in those she meets. She has this internal light and joy within her. We truly believe that light, joy and zest for life comes through in her photos. It is the essence of who she is.
Radiant: When faced with setbacks, is there a prayer or process she has in overcoming those challenges?
Linda: Yes! Because Grace works so hard on things, she has a higher level of anxiety, and the way she brings peace to herself is by saying the Rosary. It is on her iPad and is one of her favorite things to do. She’ll sit on her bed and just pray, and then she regroups and calms herself. She has a strong devotion to Our Blessed Mother.
Radiant: Radiant’s goal is to empower young women of faith and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. Grace, can you share with readers how your disability has empowered you and what message you have for women who also might have a disability or have experienced certain setbacks in life?
Grace: We all have struggles and challenges in some sort of way, some have more than others. I don’t let my disability define who I am. I am Grace, 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.
I think being seen in social media and print/advertising and hearing my story helps to break down fears society has about people with disabilities. We often fear what we don’t understand, and that is why my mom and I created #TheGraceEffect — to break down those fears and the “unknown.” With exposure we can create change, with change we can create new attitudes, perspectives and change out-dated views.
My modeling and speaking make me feel good about myself. No matter who you are, we all want the same things: to be respected, to be valued and to feel good about ourselves. I think it helps anyone who feels different to believe in themselves and maybe inspire them to try something new or step out from being too scared.
Linda: Sometimes our greatest sorrows (being made fun of) can turn into our greatest triumphs. Grace chose to forgive and wanted to do something to make a difference for others.
Radiant: We’re in a very strange and difficult time in our history with the coronavirus pandemic, but is there something at this moment that Grace is thankful for?
Linda: Grace is always thankful for family and those who love, believe in and support her. She is thankful to have her sister home from college, but more importantly thankful that we have remained healthy.
Radiant: Has there been someone in her life, whether it be a person alive now or even a saint, that has inspired Grace to lead her life the way she does?
Linda: I think her younger sister Lainie has inspired her to be the person she is today quite a bit. Lainie is a dancer and has performed since she’s been little. I think Grace saw the “limelight” her sister was given and always craved that. Grace has this incredible sense of humor and loves to make people laugh. We always prayed every night that Grace’s gifts and talents would come out. Little did we know it was in the form of speaking to audiences and modeling!
Grace has always wanted to be like her sister and do everything she was doing, whether it was to have friends to hang out with, have a boyfriend, go to prom, drive a car or study hard with academics.
Radiant: We’re doing better as a society to give more opportunities to those with disabilities, but we can always do more. What do you think still needs to happen to break down those barriers, and what can we as a faith community do to support this?
Linda: I think acknowledging and talking about disabilities more during a priest’s homily would go a long way in helping to break down those barriers. We often hear about prejudice, poverty and loneliness with regards to many other populations, but we very rarely hear anything about people with disabilities. It is a hard subject to talk about because I think sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. That’s why Grace’s work is so important — to remove the stigma and to normalize this population. They have the same wants, needs and desires as everyone else.
I think involving the youth to get involved and have more peer interaction/activities with people with disabilities within our congregations would be incredible. The youth is our hope of tomorrow. Grace always glowed and felt her best when she had peers involve and interact with her, like everyone else.
I think seeing people with disabilities in social media, print, TV shows and movies is significant in bridging the gap and bringing about new perspectives and reducing the “uncomfortableness” that some may have with no personal exposure to people with disabilities. … When you see a person with a disability represented in advertising, your perceptions start to change because they are being represented as part of the “human population,” “the human condition.” They are just like all of us, with families and friends that love and respect them and desires that are like everyone else’s.
Sheryl Tirol works in film marketing and PR in Los Angeles. As a native of Chicago, she is a lifelong Cubs fan and lover of deep dish pizza.