Marquette High School graduate Grace Strobel was born with an extra DNA chromosome carried by those with Down syndrome, yet she passionately proclaims the disorder does not define who she is. You see, Grace was born with another extra: the gift to be present in each moment to share kindness and authentically recognize others' needs to be accepted for who they are.
That's why Grace is on her own personal crusade to enlighten local students through presentations and to raise awareness about individual abilities through her social media platform.
What more defines Grace is her love of the color blue; honing her drawing skills; cooking; hanging out with her friends; working out; and driving her sister, Laine, crazy. She also enjoys movies, such as Freaky Friday.
"I hope students might start to understand what it's like to have a disability and how hard things are sometimes for us. Things that most people do without thinking about them," Grace says. "It also hurts me to see someone being made fun of, because I've gone through that myself, and the pain is deep. I hope students will see that 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."
The 22-year-old says the most challenging part about creating an informative presentation was the practicing and rehearsing.
"I have to work very hard at my presentation skills, like looking at the audience, speaking slowly, and having lots of energy and enthusiasm. I spend time each week rehearsing. I want to keep getting better and better," Grace says.
During the student interactions, Grace says she loves to joke around, which is rewarding when students laugh with her and have fun.
"My biggest joy is at the end when the students want to give me a hug, a high-five or just say hello to me and tell me how much they liked the presentation."
Grace's parting message to students often is to make ripples with kindness.
On-site school experiences aren't always positive for Grace, however. In 2017, while she was working at a school to help students in the lunchroom, she says some students poked fun at her.
"It was so incredibly painful. I cried all day and couldn't stop. I felt bad about myself. They were making fun of me because of the way I was 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," she says. "I want students to understand how painful being made fun of is, especially when you are trying your hardest."
Grace is putting her tenacity into a new venture of fashion modeling, with the goal of breaking down preconceived notions, fears and stereotypes about people with disabilities.
"It's amazing when people recognize me from my photos on Facebook and in magazines," she says.
She says the hardest part about modeling is doing a long photo shoot and not eating. She's currently working on securing an agent.
"We feel incredibly blessed to have raised Grace in an area like Chesterfield and Wildwood. The Rockwood schools that Grace attended fostered the importance of inclusion, friendships and self-worth," says Grace's mother, Linda, who wholeheartedly supports her daughter's desire to be independent.
One of the biggest influences on Grace's self-esteem has been through the family's church, St. Alban Roe Catholic Church, in Wildwood.
"Inclusion and respect from our pastor, church community and priests have given Grace the opportunity to show her capabilities, gifts and talents. Their confidence and belief in Grace have made her what she is today," Linda says.
Education about self-worth and valuing others starts at home, Linda says. She recommends parents have open conversations with their children about disabilities and what it might look like to interact with someone with a disability.
"Inclusion, respect, dignity and love are not 'special needs.' They are human needs," says Linda, who says she couldn't be prouder of the way her daughter is positively influencing minds and hearts.
If Grace could snap her fingers and change the world, she says she would get rid of the "R" word.
"It dehumanizes people and is not at all funny. We're all just people first."
Given Grace's following of 16,500-plus Facebook friends, she appears to already be making a dent in that mission.
As a young woman embarking out in the world, Grace Strobel decided to shine light on the importance of embracing human diversity, one personal presentation at a time. She delivers her talk to students throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area, hoping to change perceptions through her own charismatic grace.