The smiling face in these advertisement is so much more than a way to sell shoes.

Cora Slocum, 4, from Martinez, California, has Down syndrome and is featured in a new back-to-school ad campaign by local children’s shoe company, Livie & Luca. The company picked Cora for their advertisements after working with the nonprofit Changing The Face Of Beauty.

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Changing The Face Of Beauty is an organization founded by Katie Driscoll, a photographer and mother of six, including a daughter with Down syndrome. She decided to take action after failing to find advertisements showing kids with disabilities. Now, she’s a mom on a mission to get companies to include models with a diversity of abilities in their campaigns.

“I believe globally we’re changing the way people look at models as well as people with differences,” Driscoll told The Mighty in an email, “and that makes me so very happy.”

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“During the photo shoot, you could tell Cora was born to shine in front of the camera… Her contagious joy filled the room,” Brittany Suzuki, Livie & Luca Brand Designer, told The Mighty in an email. “We have the opportunity to change the way media portrays beauty and hope to have kids like Cora feel seen and know their abilities are limitless.”

See some photos from Cora’s shoot below:

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Photo courtesy of Livie & Luca / Priscilla Gragg
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Photo courtesy of Livie & Luca / Priscilla Gragg
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Photo courtesy of Livie & Luca / Priscilla Gragg

If by having her picture out there kind of changes people’s minds and perceptions and stereotypes, then I think that’s a good move in the right direction,” Kerri Slocum, Cora’s mother, told ABC News.

Check out the #ImGoingBackToSchoolToo hashtag to see more photos or add your voice to the conversation.

Watch the video below for more from Cora’s shoot with Livie & Luca:

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From the moment I arrive, it’s clear this isn’t going to be a “typical” photo shoot.

In the middle of Times Square I find the model holding the client’s hand, which I assume isn’t your average client-to-the-talent relationship in the fashion industry.

When it’s time to pack up and move to the next location, the model voluntarily lugs a load of the photographic gear in a rolling suitcase behind her — she wants to help.

I wonder how many models carry their photographer’s equipment just to be helpful. Probably not many. But Madeline Stuart, or Maddy, as she’s affectionately called, isn’t your average model. She’s a world-famous professional model with Down syndrome — the first adult with Down syndrome to nab not one but seven modeling contracts, according to her mother Rosanne Stuart.

Madeline Stuart with Damian Graybelle in New York
Maddy with Damian Graybelle. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.
Madeline Stuart and Damian Graybelle pulling rolling suitcases on a New York street
Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.

A year ago, Maddy, from Brisbane, Australia, was 40 pounds overweight. A commitment to dance and cheerleading helped her get healthy and discover her passion for stepping in front of the camera, which she does to help end discrimination against people with disabilities.

She exploded onto the scene several months ago when some of her photos went viral and has since amassed a huge fan base — she has more than 420,000 fans on her Facebook page and 50,000 Instagram followers.

Madeline Stuart on the EverMaya photo shoot in Times Square.
Behind the scenes on the EverMaya photo shoot in Times Square. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.
Madeline Stuart and her mom walking down New York street
Walking between locations on the EverMaya photo shoot. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.

Maddy’s had contracts with brands Manifesta and Living Dead Clothing, is the first face behind the GlossiGirl Cosmetics “Beauty Is…” campaign, will be walking the catwalk during New York Fashion Week this September for FTL Moda, had a one-of-a-kind doll made after her, and now is launching her own handbag line with a fashion company called EverMaya.

Damian Graybelle, President of EverMaya, wants it to be more than a clothing and accessory company — he’s determined to help people.

“EverMaya is all about being a brand that is socially conscious,” Graybelle tells me while we watch the makeup artists primp Maddy for the first round of shooting her handbag’s advertising campaign. “We’re really about making lives better for the people around us, especially those who start off life with a disadvantage, whatever that disadvantage may be.”

EverMaya already donates 5 percent of its profits to fund educational opportunities for the indigenous children of Guatemala, where its products are made. Now, the company will donate 5 percent of sales from the Madeline Stuart handbag line to the National Down Syndrome Society.

“We’re trying to do something different,” Graybelle says. “We want to make people feel good about the products they’re using. Having Madeline represent the brand just reinforces that good feeling.”

I’d planned to sit back and watch Maddy in action, but before long, she has me laughing, giving high-fives and taking selfies with her.

Madeline Stuart and Melissa McGlensey taking a selfie
Maddy and me snapping a selfie. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.

Like any 18-year-old internationally famous model, Maddy can have her diva moments. When we pass the Times Square M&M store and she quickly disappears inside without a word. We find her filling a bag with purple M&M’s. Graybelle buys them for her and the two hold hands while they wait in line. Then it’s back to business as usual.

Madeline Stuart inside the M&M store in Times Square
Maddy inside the Times Square M&M store. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.

The global success has been a whirlwind not just for Madeline, but also for Stuart, who’s mom, manager and public relations person all wrapped up into one. One of the hardest things she’s encountered over the past several months is the negative feedback from the online community. People have been quick to judge from afar, claiming Stuart is exploiting Maddy and forcing her into modeling for her own material gain.

“When people try and say [Maddy is] unhappy, it hurts me because my whole goal in life is to protect her and make sure she’s happy,” Stuart says. “It hurts so deeply when they accuse me of extorting her.”

After spending just moments with the two of them, it becomes abundantly clear to me that this isn’t the case.

Madeline Stuart hugging her mom, Rosanne Stuart, near Times Square
Maddy with her mom, Rosanne Stuart. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.

First of all, Stuart and her daughter are best friends. You can see it in the way they chase each other around trying to give one another playful smacks on the bum. You can see it in the way Maddy calls out “Mom!” before each photo shoot, locating her mother in the small crowd of makeup artists, photographers and clients before turning her smile to the camera. You can see it in the way Stuart responds with, “I’m right here Maddy!” and situates herself behind the camera where Maddy can focus on her.

After the first shoot, Maddy leaps into her mother’s arms where the two snuggle and kiss for a moment. Then we move on the the next location.

Madeline Stuart hugging her mom, Rosanne Stuart, near Times Square
Maddy with her mom, Rosanne Stuart. Photo cred: Melissa McGlensey, The Mighty.

It’s also abundantly clear that Maddy runs the show.

“Madeline is so stubborn,” Stuart says over the rapidly firing shutter of the photographer’s camera. “If she doesn’t want to do something, she won’t.”

Madeline on the cat walk in New York City at a recent fashion show.
Madeline on the cat walk in New York City at a recent fashion show.

At her core, Maddy’s a sweet, friendly and caring person — one who just happens to also be blazing a trail for generations of people with disabilities to come.

“The fact is Maddy just believes she can do things, and because she doesn’t understand that it’s hard to do things, she just achieves everything,” Stuart says. “She doesn’t worry about what other people think. She just believes in herself. She has no hesitation, no hang ups and she doesn’t judge anybody. She just loves and doesn’t put walls up or put people in boxes like we do.”

As we’re talking, Maddy walks in front of us through Midtown, holding hands with Graybelle and pointing out bright billboards to her mother.

“When it comes down to it, she isn’t the one with the disability,” Stuart says. “We are.”

Check out some final images photos from the shoot below:  

Madeline Stuart posing in between the V and E in a large red LOVE sign
Courtesy of EverMaya / Tammy Swales Studio
Madeline Stuart sitting on steps
Courtesy of EverMaya / Tammy Swales Studio
Madeline Stuart sitting in front of a building
Courtesy of EverMaya / Tammy Swales Studio
Madeline Stuart walking with a colorful purse
Courtesy of EverMaya / Tammy Swales Studio

“The Madeline” handbag line will launch on August 15th at NY NOW (Booth 551) and on the EverMaya website.

 


To the gentleman who bagged my groceries at Publix:

I want to say thank you for the tears I couldn’t hold back when I got home. Going shopping with my daughter Gianna is unfortunately intimidating and worrisome at times. As much as I like to believe all people are kind, there are many who are still ignorant and hurtful. I always get asked how old Gianna is, and when I say her age, I get an awkward moment of silence or a comment about her size: “Oh wow, she is too tiny.” The next question is usually, “Is she running around everywhere?” My reply is, “Nope, not yet.” Then another awkward moment of silence.

Many times I should use these moments as a chance to educate someone on what life with Down syndrome is all about. How she had open heart surgery at 4 months old and had trouble with gaining weight because of her condition and the time it took to recover. How individuals with Down syndrome might have a shorter stature. I want to express to them how hard she works to keep up and hit milestones as she grows. How she is more alike than different and I am OK with that, and they should be, too. Everyone is fighting their own battles, so stop passing judgment.

Today you didn’t do any of those things. You looked at her and smiled. You asked me how old she was and when I said almost 2, you said, “Wow she’s almost 2 years old, look how far she has come!” You gave her a balloon and I asked Gianna to say thank you by doing sign language. It took her a second, but she did it. I hate to admit my knowledge of sign language is limited because I only focus on signs she’s able to do. Boy if I knew what you signed to her while in the store today, I would have fallen to my knees in tears. When I got home, I texted a picture of what you signed to a friend and she replied, “That means, ‘I love you.”

Thank you for accepting my daughter for who she is. I only wish for a life filled with love, happiness and joy for her regardless of the things she can or cannot do. You proved to me today that she will have a bright future because there are still good people in this world and more importantly, right here in her community. I wish I could’ve given you a hug and said all this to you face-to-face today. Your kindness and sweet gesture meant more than you can imagine. Thank you.

I shared this letter on a local Publix supermarket’s Facebook page in April 2015, and the response was absolutely astonishing. The employee, Bob, was honored by his fellow staff, managers and even district managers. He was made employee of the month and is now a friend of mine. There is so much good in the world, and this particular event made a lot of people remember that.

Publix collage

A version of this post originally appeared on Publix’s Facebook page. Follow this journey on Facebook at Peace, Love, Gianna.


Have you seen the first film with a national release to star a person with Down syndrome? Check out the film “Where Hope Grows” today!

Available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.


Marcus Sikora has a flare for the creative.

The 25-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, has acted in school productions and wrote and produced a one-act stage performance in cooperation with a local high school.

Sikora also has Down syndrome, but that hasn’t stopped him from achieving something that would be impressive for any 25-year-old. As of June 2015, he can add “published author” to his list of accomplishments.

author sitting in library

Sikora’s first book, “Black Day: The Monster Rock Band,” is an illustrated 40-page children’s book. It tells the story of Brad, a paperboy who dreams of becoming a rock star. When Brad discovers the band “Black Day” — comprised entirely of monsters — rehearsing in an old garage, he approaches them and asks if he can become their new bass player. The monsters’ response is swift: “No humans!” So Brad sets out to change their minds. However, he realizes the “Black Day” bandmates have much bigger concerns on their minds.

Black Day: The Monster Rock Band book cover

“[Marcus] is an incredible storyteller with an imagination to be envied,” his mom Mardra Sikora told The Mighty in an email. She and her son worked on “Black Day” together with Marcus Sikora dictating the story as his mom transcribed it.

“Sometimes I’d ask ‘What’s next?’ or ‘Why?’ and Marcus would answer, ‘Stuck,'” Mardra Sikora told The Mighty. “‘All right,’ I’d say, ‘We’ll come back to that.’ Then the next week, we’d pick it up again.”

Author and children asking for autographs

An animated short version of the book, which Marcus Sikora wrote, directed and voices for one of the characters, will be released on DVD around October 1 (trailer below). A “Black Day” music video is also in the works. In the meantime, Sikora is already contemplating the book’s sequel.

Watch the trailer for the animated short and take a look at some of the book’s illustrations below.

Black Day comic

Black Day comic

“Black Day: The Monster Rock Band” is available for purchase here, through Amazon or through Mardra Sikora’s website. You can also keep up with Marcus and Mardra Sikora via Facebook and Twitter.

All photos courtesy of Mardra Sikora.


The restaurant was buzzing with customers and conversation. Our family of six was tightly packed into a booth made for four, and I was trying my best to keep my kids, Beau and Bitty, happy by making tiny towers out of jelly packs we had found on the table. One, two, three, four … crash. The jelly tower fell over and a roar of laughter erupted at our booth. “Do it again, Mama” Beau insisted. How could I resist? Ten towers, five nursery rhymes and 30 rounds of peek-a-boo later, our waitress finally arrived to take our order.

“Cheese-ba-gurger, smiley fries and ketchup, please,” Beau confidently stated. More laughter and lots of high-fives. We all love the way Beau says “cheeseburger” and, more importantly, we love watching him exercise his independence. 

But we’re not the only ones who love watching him.

In this crowded, chaotic moment, I feel the stillness of stares and it makes me smile.

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As parents, we’ve all experienced those moments in public when our children’s sub-par behavior becomes the focus of undesired attention. The moments that test us, try us and leave us feeling beyond embarrassed. And then there are the great moments; the moments when our children are at their best, and we wish everyone would stop to notice.

As the parents of two children with Down syndrome, we’ve discovered these moments — the moments when people can’t help but stop and stare — are always happening. The grocery store, park, mall, beach — we feel the stares and learned to embrace them. With each stare, we feel more hopeful the world is learning to value our children, and with that comes an organic realization that we all deserve to be accepted and included.

For us, the stares are an opportunity to educate others by showing them the great potential people with Down syndrome have. And perhaps more importantly, it helps give others a glimpse at the wonderful blessings we call our children.

The waitress delivers Beau’s “cheese-ba-gurger,” and he gives her an enthusiastic “thank you.” Bitty swipes a fry and reminds us all to bow our heads before she takes a bite. I look up and see the couple sitting at the table next to us has ceased their conversation and has become fixated on the action happening at our table. We exchange smiles. Please keep staring at my child.

Follow this journey on It Starts With a Voice.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone went out of his or her way to make you and/or your child feel included or not included. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.


It’s 9 o’clock. My husband’s away and I’m doing bedtime solo. The twins are in bed and Grethe’s door is closed. In the chaos of getting two 7-year-olds quiet, I have lost my 15-year-old. This is my boy with Down syndrome, and he likes to run on his own schedule. That’s not how things work in our house, however, and tonight I’m in no mood to play games.

He’s not upstairs. I call downstairs and get no answer. I feel a tinge of anger in my chest. I’m ready to be done for the day. I step out onto the front porch and stare into the darkness of the adjacent school playground, which is Kelly’s default location. I call his name into the night and listen.

“Alone!” is his exasperated reply.

Well, you know what, buddy, I’m not happy, either. We live in a neighborhood so I try not to shriek back. I calmly and sternly inform him to “Get. Back. In. The. House.”

The order is met with silence — a deeply frustrating silence.

I take a breath. My anger is now in my throat and is starting to feel like rage. I envision running onto that playground and dragging him home. But he weighs a solid 125 pounds so force doesn’t work so well these days.

I decide to get myself ready for bed to calm down. I call out very reasonably into the abyss, “Come home now, please!” and I head upstairs.

I brush my teeth and start to massage my face and neck with my nighttime essential oils. I relax a bit, but then through the bathroom window that faces the school, I hear the unmistakable sound of tires on gravel. There’s a car in the parking lot. As I rinse my face, my tired mind starts to wander. Is Kelly still over there? Who’s driving through the school lot on a dark Friday night? We live in a safe neighborhood but still.

Now I feel a different emotion rising: fear.

I finish as quickly as I can and rush back onto the porch. “Kelly!” I scream.

Nothing.

Nora Rozell the mighty.2-001

I don’t really think anything bad has happened, but I don’t know that it hasn’t either. I don’t want fear to take the lead, so l let the anger rise again.

“Kel-ly!”

More silence.

I’m getting really worked up now. But then I hear a far-off noise. A voice talking. It’s coming from over the cedar panel fence in my own backyard.

“Aargh!” I bellow as I head that way.

As his silhouette comes into view, I see he’s frantically waving me toward him. One last, “Kelly, get inside right now,” spills forth, but he just grabs my hand and says, “Shhh!”

He throws his arms out and gestures grandly to the darkness all around. “Fireflies,” he says in a whisper. “Fireflies,” he says again, in a voice that implies, “Don’t you see?”

My blind rage lifts long enough for me to look around. Sure enough, the trees and bushes are putting on a show. Lightning bugs blink and float all about in the soft summer air. The beauty of it in contrast to my anger is like a sudden slap and my eyes sting with tears.

Kelly sits cross-legged on the damp grass and stares in wonder at the show before us. I drop to my knees next to him and lean into his sturdy frame. My tears flow openly now, my demons have left me spent. While I was wasting time with rage, Kelly was sitting in awe.

As we watch this gift of nature together, I drink the sweet, night air deep into my lungs and find my way to calm. We sit in silence until we have had our fill.

Finally, Kelly gets up and reaches his hand down to help me to my feet. “Time for bed,” he says as he pulls me toward the house.

I follow his lead once more.

Follow this journey on NoraRozell.com.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share with us the moment you stood up for yourself or your child in regards to disability or disease, or a moment you wish you had? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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