“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman
Not only did Karrie Brown have a dream, she had the self-confidence and determination to reach for those stars. And she was faced with some star-reaching hurdles most young people don’t face. At birth, Karrie was diagnosed with Down syndrome and a hearing defect, and was later also diagnosed with autism. Sue Brown, Karrie’s mother, was told by doctors that her daughter would probably be severely disabled, but she refused to believe it. She would not let Karrie be defined by a diagnosis. Was it an easy road? Hardly, but she and Karrie went through all the obstacles side by side, with Sue encouraging her daughter to fulfill whatever dreams she had. Sue raised Karrie to know that she was no less than anyone around her. Sue may have had to push doors open for her daughter, but then Karrie would step through, take the ball and run with it.
Karrie was once asked by her mom, “Karrie, do you know any kids with disabilities?” She proceeded to tell her mom that she indeed knew a couple. Her mom then asked her, “Karrie, do you have a disability?” and Karrie responded, “No Mom, I just have Down syndrome.” A significant and empowering distinction.
Like other teenage girls, Karrie loves fashion (she describes her style as “biker chick”). A challenge for her mom though was finding stylish clothes that fit the curvy figure typical of people with Down syndrome. When Wet Seal — Karrie’s favorite designer — released their plus size line in 2013, Karrie was thrilled. The line was edgy and fun.
Sue posted a picture of Karrie on her next first day of school which drew the attention of another mom who called to ask about her clothes. Sue mentioned that it was from Karrie’s favorite store and that she had a dream to model for them. Later that day, Sue and a friend created a new page on Facebook called “Karrie Brown: Modeling the Future”. Wet Seal took notice. The following day, the corporate office of Wet Seal in California came back with a challenge that if Karrie could get 10,000 Likes on Facebook in 2 days, they would fly her to California for her very own photo shoot.
In less than 24 hours, Karrie had 11,000 Facebook Likes and Wet Seal honored their promise. In just two weeks, Karrie and her mom were off to California. Mom was more anxious about how Karrie was going to react to the commotion around her than was Karrie. And as it turned out, Karrie was a natural in front of the cameras, especially with the Justin Bieber music she requested to be played during the shoot. The rest of the week was a whirlwind of shopping sprees, meeting the designer, and taking a trip to Disneyland. And Wet Seal became the first clothing company to use a model with Down syndrome in their advertising, opening the doors for others with “disabilities”.
The fashion industry has long been criticized for representing beauty with tall, lanky, anorexic models. Women all across the world strive to emulate that definition of beauty, altering their appearances to fit in. But what is beauty? What defines being beautiful? One of the most refreshing and beautiful qualities about Karrie is her ability to look in the mirror and love what she sees in front of her, a reflection of the positive acceptance and support her mom gave her throughout her childhood. Karrie embraces her differences and realizes that they are what make her Karrie.
Since that first shoot, Karrie has modeled for several other clothing companies. She accepts no money for her modeling shoots or public appearances, instead asking the companies to donate directly into a non-for-profit organization her mother founded called “KarriedAway.org”. The mission of this organization is to empower people diagnosed with “disabilities” to find gainful employment through natural supports in their community and to build a society where everyone’s potential in the employment arena is achieved, regardless of level of ability. Karrie travels across the country, sharing her story with others and letting them know that just because you have a “disability” doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your dreams.
Karrie now has a Facebook fan base of over 32,000 people across 45 countries. She has won the YMCA Youth of the Year award and she spoke to over 1,500 YMCA directors in Los Angeles. She has been featured in “J-14”, the #1 Teen Celebrity Magazine with 16.5 million subscribers. On the web, Karrie can be found featured in Cosmopolitan, Glamour, The Huffington Post, Seventeen, ABC News, and – in the UK – The Daily Mail, just to name a few. She was also honored to walk the Red Carpet at a pre-Oscar event. She is an honor roll student at Collinsville High School and will graduate this month. She just attended her high school prom and, although she had a date, decided to go with her girlfriends instead. Karrie’s plans after high school include starting classes at Godfrey’s Lewis and Clark Community College in the Fall. The “Unsinkable Karrie Brown” and her mom will continue their mission to educate the public through the “KarriedAway” organization.
I was recently honored to attend one of Karrie’s photoshoots at Woodland Park in Collinsville with local photographer Kyle Pingsterhaus of KWP Photography in Belleville, Illinois. Kyle is one of six photographers that Karrie has worked with and, according to her mom, one of Karrie’s favorites. Watching the two work together, I could see the bond that has developed between them. The moment the camera started clicking, Karrie went into ‘her zone’ and performed like the professional model she is. Kyle said that Karrie is a joy to work with — always listening to his suggestions and following through with his directions.
I want to thank Karrie, her mom Sue, and Kyle for allowing me to be a part of their lives that day. I am humbled by the dedication, determination, love, and support that surrounds Karrie. And my final thought to Karrie is, “Keep shining beautiful one. The world needs your light.” –author unknown.
Who: Kyle Pingsterhaus
Where: KWP Photography, Belleville IL