All photos © Trenna Travis
When Grace Strobel was born with Down syndrome, doctors were sure that her development would be severely limited. But 24 years later, Grace is breaking barriers in the fashion industry and inspiring thousands of young people to achieve their dreams.
After a severe bullying attack in 2017, Grace co-created #TheGraceEffect, a presentation about overcoming obstacles, treating people with kindness and respect, and living with a disability. She has since spoken to over 3,000 students and continues to raise awareness and break down stereotypes about people with disabilities. While doing research for #TheGraceEffect, Grace came across photos of a model with Down syndrome and was inspired to pursue modeling as well.
Grace’s modeling photos achieved viral online fame in 2018, leading to an influx of encouraging comments and invitations to speak and model for various functions and publications. Since then, Grace has modeled in over 14 magazines, has walked the New York Fashion Week runway for Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive / Runway of Dreams, and has partnered with brands like Fenty Beauty, skincare line Obagi, and clothing brand Alivia.
Global Heroes sat down with Grace and her mother, Linda, to discuss #TheGraceEffect, her modeling career, and words of wisdom for dealing with bullying.
The Grace Effect, a presentation for schools about living with a disability, has been praised for how informative and interactive it is. Can you tell us the story that inspired you two to create #TheGraceEffect?
Grace: The first job I got was working in the lunchroom at a school. It was actually my school, the school I had gone to. The lunchroom was full of kids talking and eating. The thing I loved most about this job was helping people. I loved feeling responsible, capable, and that I belonged.
One day, some kids who were eating lunch asked me for help opening their fruit cups and milk cartons; that was part of my job. Having Down syndrome, I have to work hard at my dexterity. Those kinds of tasks are harder for me, but I can do them.
I was standing by the lunch table trying to open a fruit cup when I realized the kids I was helping were laughing. It suddenly felt wrong. Why were they laughing? What was funny? Then I realized. They were laughing at me. They didn’t need help to open their food at all; they had asked me so they could watch me struggle. I started to feel sick and dizzy. The lunchroom was always a loud place, but now all the sounds seemed to mix together into a roar. I ran back to the kitchen, and I burst into tears.
When you make fun of someone, it only takes a few seconds. For the kids laughing at me, it was over. For me, it wasn’t over.
I’ve always been a positive, upbeat person, but I felt scared, alone, and for the first time, I felt hated. That was when everything changed for me. I decided to start working toward changing perceptions of people with disabilities.
#TheGraceEffect is about kindness, belonging, overcoming obstacles, and appreciating one’s own worth. I wanted to share with students what it is like to have struggles and show how you can change someone’s life just by being kind and giving respect. I challenge students to look beyond what they see and seek kindness, respect, and dignity for all individuals.
In 2018, photos of Grace went viral, kicking off an amazing modeling career. What about modeling drew Grace in and inspired her to start?
Linda: I think her whole life, Grace has craved to be seen and recognized and is not afraid to be who she is. We have always taught Grace to believe in herself and have never said she couldn’t do anything—so when she saw another model with Down syndrome that inspired her and asked if she could try it, I said, “I don’t see why not, let’s do this!” So we hired a local photographer and released her first photos on Facebook, and as a parent, it was a very vulnerable moment. I wanted the world to see what I saw in Grace. Fortunately, they did. Her photos went viral with over 220,000 shares on Facebook, from all over the world. We were just blown away and excited!
Grace shares a compelling message that people with disabilities can achieve anything and everything they set out to do. What’s next for Grace?
Linda: Honestly, we are open and grateful for anything that comes her way. She recently partnered with Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, an incredible thrill and opportunity. Society is changing because of brands like Fenty Beauty and others who are showcasing true inclusion—opening the doors for all of humanity to feel represented. We could not be more thankful.
Grace is constantly inspiring her audience to turn pain into purpose and overcome obstacles with a positive attitude. Can you share a few words of wisdom for those who may be in a similar situation?
Linda: When the bullying happened to Grace, she hit rock bottom. I saw it as a teaching moment—because what I saw when the children were making fun of her was that they actually didn’t see her as an individual, as Grace. They saw someone who was different, vulnerable, and an open target—with no understanding of the struggles she faces daily. We all fear what we don’t understand—this was our opportunity to break down those walls. That’s when we created #TheGraceEffect presentation to teach about overcoming struggles with kindness, empathy, and belonging.
Forgiveness is another factor. When you forgive, you can move forward. You won’t change the past or what happened, but you will change your future. There will always be people who fear the unknown or who are unable to walk in another’s shoes for understanding—but you have the power to believe in who you are and feel good about yourself. We all have gifts and talent that we bring to the world. Surround yourself with the people who support you, allow your time and energy to focus on the positive, and that is where you will be.