The first job I ever had was working in the lunchroom at a school. It was actually my school, the school I went 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, which was part of my job. Having Down syndrome – I really 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, like I was going to throw up. I felt dizzy. My face went white. 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. The world blurred, I felt the tears well up inside of me, and I burst out crying.
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.
Back home, I sat on my bed and my mom sat next to me, letting me rock gently while I sobbed. I tried to stop thinking about what happened, when I closed my eyes I heard the kids laughing, I could see them pointing at me, like a horrible movie in my head. It hurt so much to remember, but I couldn’t stop remembering.
I’ve always been a positive, up-beat person, but I felt so much sadness, like there were hands on my shoulders, pushing me down. I kept waiting to feel like myself again, but I couldn’t. There was an awful twisting pain in my stomach that I had never felt before. I felt scared, alone, and for the first time, I felt hated. A part of me died that day. I wanted to stay in my room forever and never come out. I cried for four days.
There are days when I feel like I’ll never fully understand it. That day sitting on my bed, my mom was helping me through the pain. She told me sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Maybe I could help them understand. I had made presentations before. Maybe I could make one about Down syndrome. I wanted to make a difference. I made a decision to start working toward changing perceptions of people with disabilities. That was when everything changed for me.
I co-created a presentation called #TheGraceEffect to talk about kindness, belonging, overcoming obstacles and one’s own worth. I wanted to share with students what it is like to have struggles, and I wanted to have them experience them as I do both physically and emotionally. I also wanted to 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
I’ve spoken to over 3,000 students already, and I love getting the chance to change a new generation of minds and hearts and encourage others to seek kindness, respect and to value others. If you judge people, you have no time to love them. I know that I can be strong and be a champion of hope and resiliency. I was once wounded by being made fun of, and now it feels incredible to turn hurt into purpose. I love that I get a chance to break down barriers, change perceptions, and seek understanding and respect.
About a year after I started speaking, my confidence was back, and I wanted to take my message to a more visible platform, so guess what I did? I embarked on a modeling career. Forgiveness and kindness has the power to radically transform lives. I no longer feel broken or alone. And now I want my modeling and speaking to help create a kinder, braver, more authentic world. To see the beauty and possibility in each one of us.
The ending of #TheGraceEffect presentation goes like this, a quote from Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world but can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I want to make ripples.
Learn more about Grace at Gracestrobel.com!