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Giving Something Extra: Two local women set out to erase stereotypes of people with disabilities

Ally and Grace. Two young women. One goal. Both are pushing the boundaries of societal stereotypes and antiquated stigmas, all while changing the world – one photo, one presentation, one dance and one hug at a time.

Both were born with an extra chromosome – a small piece of code ingrained in their DNA that resulted in Down syndrome. The common thread that weaves its way through their and their families’ lives is how they both possess an uncommon humility in acknowledging the humanity that connects us all regardless of ability, health, race, economic or social barriers.

“I think when people experience the spirit of people like Grace and Ally, they realize themselves what is most important,” said Ally’s mom, Lisa. “Do you love others well? Are you accepting of people who are not like you? Do you look for the goodness in others and encourage them with words of life? Do you spread joy? Do you make sure you don’t take yourself too seriously? Do you love life? Do you notice others who may need a hug?”

Through their examples, Ally and Grace are hoping to impart lessons in how to treat all human beings. In Grace’s words: “Respect and kindness can change someone’s life.”

Ally

Wentzville resident Ally Nichols is the daughter of Lisa and Greg Nichols.

Lisa is the CEO of Technology Partners, Inc. in Chesterfield and hosts the leadership podcast, “Something Extra with Lisa Nichols.” She also is writing a book called “Something Extra” that focuses on Ally’s impact and the lessons the Nichols family has learned from seeing the world through Ally’s eyes. The podcast [lisagaylenichols.com] focuses on conversations with community leaders who bring “something extra” to all that they do.

“We believe that every person was uniquely designed with special things to share with the world and make a difference,” Lisa explained. “The book explores key attributes that Ally exhibits naturally, such as showing unbiased acceptance of others and extra gratitude for the simple, everyday things we are tempted to take for granted.”

Each podcast begins the same way, with Lisa speaking the following words: “Chromosomes, little strands of nucleic acids and proteins that are the fundamental instructions that tell us who we are at birth. Most people are born with 46 chromosomes but each year in the United States, about 6,000 people are born with an extra chromosome, making them a person with Down syndrome. If you’ve ever encountered someone with Down syndrome, you know that they are some of the kindest, most joyful people you’ll ever meet. They truly have something extra.”

Ally Nichols with her mother, Lisa

According to Lisa, Ally’s “something extra” is much more than a medical diagnosis. Nothing keeps her from pursuing her dreams.

Ally has a part-time job at Progress West Hospital, is in the glee and hand chime choir through the Pujols Center, volunteers in multiple arenas and her social calendar rivals that of most celebrities.

“I say all the time that Ally is my sidekick; however, I am beginning to believe that I am hers,” Lisa said. “She loves to attend any kind of event and is usually the life of the party. It doesn’t matter what we are doing, she gives it everything and has fun doing it.”

At 23, Ally truly loves life.

“I love to hang out with my family and friends, dance, sing, watch movies and go out to eat,” Ally said. “I just love everyone!”

That sentiment sums up Ally’s personality and is an attitude that helps her break through old stereotypes about what people with disabilities can do.

In January, Ally will be dancing as part of the cast of Dancing with the St. Louis Stars* to benefit the Independence Center, a community-based program of mental health support for adults with severe mental illness. Her participation stems from her mom’s role last January as a judge for the annual fundraiser. When Lisa’s husband got sick and couldn’t attend the 2017 event, she took Ally as her date. In true form, Ally was the belle of the ball.

This year, as planning got underway, Abby Berger, business development manager for the Independence Center [independencecenter.org], said Ally immediately came to mind.

“She brought joy to everyone around her and we really wanted her to be involved,” Berger said. “Mental illness is a diagnosis, like any diagnosis, that can be managed and treated. We just try to provide the treatment and support needed to make that happen. We focus on building relationships with those with mental illness who are living in the margins of our society, to hopefully give them back their dignity and an opportunity to live independently.”

That sentiment resonates with Lisa and with Ally, who is thrilled to get the opportunity to be a part of the Dancing with the St. Louis Stars cast. She has been involved in dancing and performing in the past and always has loved the stage. When asked to participate, her response was an excited, “Yes! I’ve got moves!”

Ally’s dance instructor, Mike McAllister of Dance Pizazz in St. Charles, said Ally is “one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. Within the first five minutes of meeting each other, we were laughing and joking around, having the time of our lives. It was a perfect fit.” When McAllister’s father came to the studio recently, “Ally went right up … and gave him a big hug, even though she had never met him. That’s just who she is. She wants everyone to be known and accepted and she is constantly thinking about others.

Ally Nichols with her Dancing with the St. Louis Stars dance coach, Mike McAllister

“If everyone was like Ally, the world would be a better place.”

Lisa agrees. “Our older children would say they are better people because of Ally. They have grown in ways they possibly would not have if Ally had not been a part of their lives.”

The same can be said for Ally’s friends, including Reagan Imergoot, whom Ally met when she was 3.

Reagan and Ally became fast friends and Lisa said, “I knew then that Reagan was someone I would love forever for how she loved Ally.”

At Reagan’s 6th birthday party, over 20 friends attended, but Reagan saved a special spot at the table right next to her for Ally. Fast forward 20 years and the friendship remains the same. When Reagan is in St. Louis, she always makes sure that she and Ally have special dates to the movies, eating at Chick-fil-A, or getting FroYo.

“I know the impact that Reagan has had on Ally’s life,” Lisa said. “[She’s] that friend that sees past what the world sees and makes sure you know you belong.” But Ally also has had a positive impact on Reagan’s life.

“Growing up with ‘Al Pal’ has been one of life’s sweetest gifts,” Reagan said.

Grace

Grace Strobel, of Chesterfield, is a 22-year-old model [gracestrobel.com] who hopes to use public appearances and photo shoots to raise awareness of individual abilities. Grace had 220,000 shares on social media in the first two weeks of going public with her message of acceptance, striking a chord with people all over the world.

When Grace was born, doctors told her parents, Jeff and Linda, she would be a burden on their family. A genetics counselor told them she would never read or write and even suggested to them that there are “institutions” for Grace if they wanted to pursue that route.

“I knew then and there that I wasn’t going to go in that direction,” Linda said. “The constant in our lives is that we have always held the bar high for Grace, and no matter how many challenges she has faced, we have worked to bring out her potential.

“Grace has shed the scales from our family’s eyes and now we see the world from an entirely different perspective – one of love, forgiveness and kindness.”

Grace Strobel

In grade school, Grace got a taste of the hurtful ignorance that exists in the world for those with disabilities, after being made fun of and teased.

“She died inside that day,” Linda said.

Grace said, “When the kids were making fun of me, it hurt so badly. I cried all day and couldn’t stop. I felt bad about myself. I don’t want that to happen to other people.”

That was when everything changed for Grace. After experiencing bullying in such a personal way, she made a decision to start working toward changing perceptions of people with disabilities.

“I think we all fear what we don’t know,” Linda said. “Grace wanted to break down that fear. She wanted to help people understand what it might be like to have Down syndrome and help people understand differences and abilities.”

With help, Grace researched and developed a presentation to educate audiences on ability awareness, strengths, challenges and acceptance. A graduate of Marquette High, she currently delivers those presentations to schools in the St. Louis area, challenging students to look beyond what they see and seek kindness, respect and dignity for all individuals.

“It hurts me to see someone being laughed at, made fun of, or thought of as not capable,” Grace shared. “I want to change that. I want students to understand what it might be like to have a disability and how hard it is sometimes to do things. Maybe they won’t laugh or make fun of someone the next time.

“I don’t want them to be afraid of me or anyone that might look a little different. I want them to see that we are capable and want love, respect and to be included like everyone else. And I want them to see that we have gifts and talents like all people.”

After a few presentations, Grace saw a model with Down syndrome and wondered if she could do the same.

“People with disabilities are not often seen in media and advertising, and I think having that exposure helps break down those preconceived notions and fears,” Linda explained. “Through modeling, [Grace hopes she] can change perceptions and help society to see people with disabilities as people first; with gifts, talents and capabilities. Through exposure, we create change; and through change, we create new opportunities and perceptions.”

Grace Strobel

Grace gets excited when she sees how her words and photos are impacting lives and breaking down stereotypes.

“I love talking to students and doing my presentation,” Grace said. “It makes me feel so good that I can do this on my own. I love seeing the students laugh when I joke around. Getting all the hugs and high fives at the end makes me feel so good about myself and what I am doing. They tell me how much they liked my presentation and that they understand what I am saying. I also love seeing my photos in magazines.”

Linda talked about the admiration she has for Grace, seeing her daughter defy society’s expectations.

“My whole life, even before Grace was in our family, I have had a heart for individuals with disabilities. It is important to me that they be treated with the same respect, dignity and worth as any other individual. It takes unimaginable strength to continually endure, persist and overcome,” Linda said. “That is the torch that I still carry, but now I get to see my daughter carry her own torch. I can’t tell you how proud I am of her and all that she is doing to change hearts and minds. She is an incredibly determined and hardworking young lady, full of love, laughter and joy,” Linda said.

*The 11th annual Dancing with the St. Louis Stars is a benefit for Independence Center sponsored by Centene Corporation. St. Louis business leaders will entertain in the dance competition on Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Ritz-Carlton. The gala will raise funds and bring awareness to mental illness and the services saving lives at Independence Center. Visit dancingwiththestlouisstars.org for more details and tickets.
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