Early on a weekday morning, Grace Strobel perched on a chair in the St. Alban Roe School library, as a group of 3- and 4-year-olds huddled at her feet as she read a book to them. Afterward, she organized coloring sheets and crayons at the tables for the preschoolers, as they enjoyed the morning unleashing their creativity.
This is part of Grace’s weekly routine at the Catholic grade school in Wildwood, where she’s volunteered for the past year. She says it’s her parish where she feels the most comfortable and where she can show others just how capable she really is.
“I love the feeling I get when I am in church and working at school,” said the 23-year-old. “I feel loved and believed in.”
Shortly after Grace was born, testing confirmed she had Down syndrome. Jeff and Linda Strobel knew Grace would face developmental challenges; but, through God’s grace, she’s overcome them in a big way.
Grace spent her school years attending a mixture of public schools and homeschool, and graduated from Lafayette High School in the Rockwood School District. Her family always challenged her to do her best. When she was 16, Grace volunteered as an altar server at weekend Masses at St. Alban Roe. At first, Grace’s younger sister, Laine, assisted her in the sanctuary as she learned the routine. But, as Linda describes it, Grace’s self-confidence “exploded.”
St. Alban Roe pastor Father Richard Stoltz has “always treated her with respect and care, and never treated her differently,” Linda says. “It was the first time she was really able to show she was capable in front of a big congregation — not that we didn’t already know that. This was a real turning point for her.”
Father Stolz characterized Grace as one of the parish’s “best servers. What’s really great is that the people (of the parish) have noticed and responded in a great way,” he says. The priest noted that another parishioner with Down syndrome also helps at Mass as a cross-bearer and usher. “Whatever we can do to incorporate everybody into the liturgy, we’re ready to do it,” Father Stolz says.
A big break
Several years ago, Grace and her mother were volunteering at another school. A group of children in the lunchroom waved at Grace to get her attention. Linda intercepted and asked if they needed help opening the items in their lunchboxes. But the group said they wanted Grace to come over to the table.
Linda asked — Why?
“They laughed because they knew she couldn’t do it,” she says.
Grace overheard the whole thing. She was devastated. In the past, she had been able to shake off the stares or unkind comments from others, but this time, it really got her. Seeing her daughter in tears that day made Linda determined to help Grace more clearly see the gifts that God had given her. The two set out to research more about Down syndrome, including the accomplishments of many people living with the condition.
In 2017, Linda approached another school and asked if she and Grace could give a presentation on their research. They spent five days a week researching, putting hundreds of hours into perfecting the 45-minute presentation, which Grace now has two-thirds of the way memorized.
In the past two years, Grace has visited more 3,000 students in public schools across the St. Louis area, sharing a message of inclusion and raising awareness of abilities and the gifts and talents of all people. In her presentation, she invites children to participate in several role-playing exercises — such as putting on a pair of gloves and then trying to button a shirt, to demonstrate the extra effort that Grace needs to move her muscles. Low muscle tone is characteristic in people with Down syndrome.
“Grace bases the message off her life experiences, but generalizes it in a way that it applies to anybody who feels different,” says Linda.
In the midst of their research, Grace and Linda came across a young model from Australia who also has Down syndrome. Madeline Stuart has been featured in Fashion Week in New York, Paris and London and featured in countless publications. Grace was mesmerized.
“She said, ‘Mom, can I do that?'” Linda recalls.
Linda hired a professional photographer to get some shots of Grace and shared them online. They began to gain attention — 220,000 shares within two weeks — and Linda contacted St. Louis fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh, who invited Grace to participate in a local fashion show, and later in Atlantic City Fashion Week in New Jersey. Grace has also appeared in local publications and fashion shows and other events and has given speeches at fundraising events, including organizations that support individuals with Down syndrome.
Last fall, Grace was picked up by Gamut Management, a talent agency that focuses on “rebranding the way people with disabilities are viewed, marketed to and represented in the mainstream world,” according to its website. She also recently signed with St. Louis-based Centro Modeling.
Grace’s big break came in October, when she was chosen as an ambassador for Obagi Skincare, standing alongside actress and activist Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who is leading the skin care company’s Skinclusion initiative, a global advertising campaign highlighting the diversity of skin types.
Linda had seen the campaign, which highlights how Obagi tests its products on the six different skin types represented in the Fitzpatrick scale, a classification system that gauges how skin types react to UV light. She wrote to the company’s president, Jamie Castle, and asked her to consider Grace for the campaign.
“You are everything we’ve been doing,” Linda recalls her writing to Castle. “It’s everything we believe in, everything Grace believes in.” Castle responded with an invitation to visit Chicago for a photo and video shoot for a marketing campaign. The same month, she appeared on the "Today" show to talk about her experience as a model and her message of kindness and inclusion that she shares in her school presentations.
“A blessing to all of us”
Grace’s first task every morning at St. Alban Roe School is to collect the attendance sheets and other papers from each classroom and deliver them to the office. After visiting younger students in the morning to read to them, she heads over to the cafeteria to prepare for the lunchtime crowd, helping stock drinks, baking and wrapping cookies and filling small paper cups with condiments.
The tasks are helping her to gain job skills (her family hopes the volunteering will lead to employment at the school or another place in the future), while at the same time giving her an opportunity to work on physical therapy skills.
A little over a year ago, Father Stoltz had approached St. Alban Roe principal Tara Smith about giving Grace an opportunity to help at the school. Smith and Linda Strobel made a list of tasks that would be meaningful to Grace, as well as a help to the school; and they made necessary adaptations in order for her to complete the work.
Smith, though, says there’s another more important component to all of this — Grace’s presence among students, and recognizing the inherent worth of all people, no matter their abilities.
“They treat her like she’s a celebrity,” Smith says of the students. “They know she’s somebody special, and I have been so touched by how sweet the kids are with her. We all have a place in life, and I think hers is here right now, and it’s a blessing to all of us.”
Grace identifies her determination as a gift from God. She acknowledges that she has to work harder than others, but her determination helps her achieve her goals. “I want to do the same things everyone else does,” she says. “So I work super hard.”
God to me is love and joy. God loves me so much. My joy comes from Him.