With long blond hair and a cherubic face, Grace Strobel, 23, is an up-and-coming model and an ardent advocate for inclusivity for the disabled — which she speaks on often. A devout Catholic, she is also an altar server at her church and a regular volunteer at the parish school.

The joyful, promising life Grace lives is a far cry from the one experts told her parents to expect from their firstborn child.

“After she was born the delivery room was pretty hush-hush — stone-cold quiet,” her mother, Linda Strobel, 56, recalled via telephone from their home in St. Louis. “There was whispering in the corner. Then they said that from her low muscle tone at birth and other markers, they thought she had Down syndrome.”

Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by an extra chromosome, is a lifelong condition associated with intellectual and developmental problems and distinctive facial characteristics. Within hours after Grace’s birth, a geneticist met with her parents. “He basically said she will probably never read or write; that most Down kids are overweight; that she won’t be able to tie her shoes,” Linda said.

“There was no glimmer of hope. Our world came crashing down. The only positive was: ‘They’re happy kids.’ Everything else was: ‘She won’t do this; she won’t do that. If you can’t handle this, you can adopt her out. There’s no shame. There are still institutions.’”

“Before we even held her, we were told all this gloom-and-doom stuff,” added Grace’s father, Jeff Strobel, 57.

The couple rejected the dire predictions. Instead, they trusted in God and charted their own course.

“We didn’t want to look at Grace as an accumulation of things wrong with her. We wanted to see how she could develop in every aspect of her life,” Linda said.

“We want Grace to have as full and complete a life as she possibly can,” affirmed Jeff.

They set the bar high and worked with their daughter, who also worked hard, the couple said.

“There were no different expectations for her than for our younger child (Laney),” Linda said. “It was always a big focus for us to have her develop her full potential, whether language, academics, healthy diet, exercise, social life … you name it, we were working with her.”

Their efforts were soon rewarded. “She started reading sight words by age 3; by age 5, she had memorized 1,000 sight words and was reading at a second-grade level,” Linda said. “We wanted to be ahead of the curve in case and when the lags would come in.”

Grace received a combination of public and home school. When she did attend school in a classroom, Linda supplemented with lots of reinforcement at home. Grace also took gymnastics lessons and was on the local YMCA swim team.

“She wasn’t the fastest swimmer, but she was part of the team,” Linda said. “She swam and exercised for the full hour the other kids did. She didn’t stop. We knew that in order for her to succeed we were all going to have to work hard, not only Grace. We would have to do extra exercises and have extra lessons.”

As a teenager, Grace also began training as an altar server for Mass at her parish, St. Alban Roe in suburban St. Louis. It’s a ministry she loves and continues to be involved in.

“She just took off. That kid shined,” Linda said. “When she was on the altar and able to show she was capable and responsible and knew her jobs, that confidence in her just exploded.”

Associate pastor Father Freddy Deveraj appreciates Grace’s contribution as an acolyte.

“I am very impressed with her,” he said in an email to the Register. “She is a joy to be with. The community loves her.”

For the past two years Grace has volunteered at St. Alban Roe School, fulfilling a variety of duties. Among them: She reads to preschool and kindergarten children, delivers items between the office and classrooms, bakes and wraps sugar cookies for lunch, and fills condiment cups in the lunchroom.

“She’s a superstar,” declared the principal, Tara Smith. “She exudes sunshine and God’s graces. We like to say at our school that every child is a gift — and she really is. She works very hard. She’s contributing to our school, and we love her.”

Loved and appreciated by many, Grace has also experienced the heartbreak of being the brunt of jokes due to her disability. While volunteering at a different school a few years ago, she was devasted one day by children laughing at her. To overcome that hurt, Linda and Grace researched Down syndrome and developed a presentation for schoolchildren to build awareness about it. Since 2017 Grace has presented #TheGraceEffect to some 3,000 schoolchildren.

“Basically, she wants to teach kids about Down syndrome and about struggles. She wants them to understand that she is just like everyone else. She has feelings and gets hurt. But she has to work hard to do what everyone else does,” Linda said. “If you explain the things she deals with on a daily basis, physically and emotionally, and demonstrate it to the students, it becomes not scary anymore. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. If we can help them understand, they will look at people with disabilities in a different light — not out of pity, but out of respect. We want to have people with disabilities respected and valued as part of our society.”

Grace agreed. “No matter who you are, we all want the same things,” she told the Register, “to be valued, to be respected and to feel good about ourselves.”

While researching the accomplishments of those with Down syndrome, Grace learned about an Australian model with the condition and asked her mom if she could model, too. Linda hired a photographer and posted the photos to social media.

“They went viral,” she said. “They had 220,000 shares in two weeks. We knew we had something.” Linda reached out to St. Louis fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh, who made Grace’s dream come true by having her walk the runway for Atlantic City Fashion Week in New Jersey.

Grace has also appeared in local fashion shows and has been featured in magazine and newspaper articles and on local and national television, including the Today show. She has a website, GraceStrobel.com, and is represented by Gamut Management, a talent agency focused on rebranding the way people with disabilities are represented in pop culture. “Grace has the ability to change the perception of people with disabilities in the public eye,” Gamut founder and CEO Mindy Scheier said via email, adding that the agency aims to expand her career in modeling, acting and influencing. “She is a woman first — a person first, who has a platform to tell her story unapologetically,” said Scheier. “She has drive, ambition and vision … her disability does not define her.”

Grace recently landed two modeling contracts. She credits her achievements to several main factors. “My parents believed in me and worked with me and gave me a chance to succeed always,” she said. “I’ve always worked hard. I want to do things like everyone else and to be given a chance — and I’m determined. And God is with me — yeah!”

What is her hope for the future?

“To keep modeling and speaking — and I want a boyfriend,” she said, drawing chuckles from her parents.

Linda and Jeff are delighted when the parents of disabled children express gratitude to them for the inspiration and hope Grace’s successes bring them. “I believe Grace was given to us as she is for a reason: to change our lives and our family, but also as a sign from God to show what’s possible — his glory — and to show God’s love,” said Jeff. “She is all love and all joy. Having a child with any genetic problem is not easy, but she is truly a gift for us.”

Linda concurred and said that Grace has been a teacher for their family. “She surprised us with a whole new life — a life that taught us to see things differently: to see love and joy and kindness in people,” she said.

“I’ve learned courage, strength and perseverance from her. She’s taught us unconditional love and what it means to forgive. She has made us the people we are today.”

Their daughter is a living, breathing message on the dignity and value of every human life. “Grace is a reflection of God’s love,” Linda said. Added Jeff, “She is an example that anything is possible.”

Roxanne King writes

from Denver.