Herald Staff Writer
The weight of a doctor’s poor prognosis might cause some people to lose hope, but not the Strobel family. When their oldest daughter Grace was born with Down syndrome 22 years ago, her parents Linda and Jeff, who both have roots in Norton and now live in St. Louis, did not give into despair.
“When I was born, doctors said I would never amount to much, or tie my own shoes,” said Grace.
Overcoming the odds, Grace has become a public speaker who urges acceptance of those who are different and educates students and adults alike on how it feels to live with Down syndrome.
Last year, she embarked on a modeling career, having been inspired by Australian model Madeline Stuart, who also has the condition. When Grace released her portfolio on social media, her photos went viral and hit 220,000 shares in two weeks in 15 different countries. Since then, she has been featured in five magazines.
“We had no idea how it would turn out, but it’s bigger than we ever imagined,” said Linda, who worked for many years at her father’s car dealership, A Merry Oldsmobile in Norton, before moving away and getting married to Jeff Strobel, a graduate of Norton High School and Kent State, and former U.S. Naval officer.
Choosing a different path
According to the predictions, Grace would never learn to read or write and would be a burden on her family for the rest of their lives.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21. Typically, it is associated with delays in physical growth, intellectual disability, and characteristic facial features, such as slanted eyes.
“They said if we couldn’t handle this, there were places we could adopt her out or put her in an institution,” said Linda.
Believing nurture is just as important as nature in child development, Linda set out to prove the doctors wrong. “I said, there’s no way we are going down that road.
I never really listened to the predictions,” she said. “We were blessed. Grace didn’t have any huge medical issues.”
That’s not to say there were not challenges. “She definitely struggles with things. But she is incredibly hard-working.”
The Strobels addressed the obstacles head-on as a family. “We treated Grace just like our other daughter, Laine. We expected the same behavior, we made her do chores, and we started Grace reading really early. She started reading at age 3 with flashcards. We encouraged her to pursue her talents, and to push herself beyond her comfort zone.”
For most of her life, Grace was home-schooled by her mother. When she did attend a private school, Linda got the same books the school had and prepared her daughter on each week’s lessons. “We never expected anyone to do anything for us,” she said.
It was while in school that Grace experienced bullying by other students, who made fun of her because she had difficulty opening milk cartons and fruit cups.
Grace said, “It hurt. I felt like I died inside.”
Linda said, “When I realized what was happening, I was mad for a couple of minutes, but then I thought, it really comes from fear, and from not being educated on what it means to have a disability.”
This is what sparked Grace’s desire to educate others.
In her own words: “That is when I decided I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to share with students what it is like to have struggles. I wanted to show how you can change someone’s life just by being kind and giving respect.”
Last year, Grace was accepted into college but decided not to go because she would have to move far from her family. In the meantime, Grace will continue public speaking and hopes to get signed with a modeling agency to evolve her career.
“I think the world is opening up to that,” said Linda. “Diversity is now rising, and brands are starting to understand that people want to see models more like themselves.”
The modeling will also provide Grace with a platform to share her message.
“Our faith has a lot to do with what we do,” said Linda. “We all believe we are all here for a reason, and this is Grace’s gift and talent. She can help break down barriers and shatter stereotypes and make this a better world.”