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Collinsville woman with Down syndrome focuses on abilities

Karrie Brown is a model, actress, YMCA volunteer, spokesman for a non-profit foundation and local celebrity.

Why is that surprising? Karrie, 20, of Collinsville, has Down syndrome.

Much credit goes to her mother, Sue Brown, who doubles as her manager and chauffeur. She believes people with developmental disabilities can surpass expectations and become productive citizens — if given the right opportunities.

“Karrie just wants to be like everyone else,” said Sue, 61. “She wants to be accepted. She doesn’t want to be special, just normal.”

Karrie has led a high-profile life since 2013, when she met a Facebook challenge and was invited to do a modeling shoot for Wet Seal clothing line in California.

She walked the red carpet at a pre-Oscars event in Hollywood, served as grand marshal for Collinsville’s Italian Fest Parade and inspired a bracelet design by an Indiana jewelry maker.

Perhaps Karrie’s favorite experience was being featured in J-14, a national teen magazine that focuses on celebrity news.

“I love Justin Bieber,” she said earlier this month. “He’s my favorite rock star.”

Karrie was sitting in a booth at McDonald’s on Beltline Road in Collinsville, where she co-hosted a promotional event called Date Night with Karrie and Tyler. Tyler Browning, 22, Karrie’s boyfriend, also has Down syndrome. Employees decorated with flowers and white tablecloths. They wore white shirts and bow ties to serve food.

“Karrie has been coming here for years,” said Terry Johnson, head of the restaurant’s Guest Service Team. “We wanted to bring attention not only to McDonald’s involvement in the community, but to her organization.”

Last year, Sue set up Karried Away, a non-profit foundation that helps adults with disabilities achieve their dreams.

“We help them find meaningful employment,” Sue said. “Instead of going to a day program or sheltered workshop, we want to see them working out in the community.”

The Browns promote the cause through Karrie’s Facebook page, which has more than 33,000 likes.

The foundation recently awarded its first set of grants, totaling $2,500. Five special education students at Columbia High School received iPads and other items to help them get jobs and live independently. Students can use iPads to watch how-to videos on everything from cleaning tables at a fast-food restaurant to cake-decorating at a bakery.

“It’s going to change their worlds, possibly,” said special education teacher Gina Gunn. “They won’t have to rely on adults to tell them how to do everything.”

Sue Brown is a retired occupational therapy practitioner. She has another daughter, Katelyn, 26, who just finished a master’s degree in archeology in Scotland.

Karrie has multiple diagnoses, including Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy and hearing loss.

“When Karrie was 12, school personnel said, ‘She’ll never be able to do anything,’ and that kind of bothered me,” Sue said. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. You don’t know her.’”

Five years later, Sue mentioned Karrie’s modeling aspirations on Facebook and posted photos of her wearing stylish school clothes. That caught the attention of Wet Seal, her favorite clothing line.

Company officials challenged Karrie to get 10,000 likes by the end of the week, which she surpassed. That earned her a free trip to California for a modeling shoot, a shopping spree and a visit to Disneyland.

“The entire trip revolved around Karrie being the star of the show,” according to her website bio.

In California, the Browns met Ronaldo Needham, owner of Ronaldo Designer Jewelry in New Albany, Ind. He was so inspired by Karrie, he designed a bracelet in her honor. The delicate Karried Away bracelet features fiber-optic beads and a choice of gemstones. It sells for $99 with a percentage going to the foundation.

“We’ve sold thousands of them,” said Michael Scheser, company vice president. “You can get them in dozens of different colors, but Karrie’s favorite is red.”

The Browns also raise money through speaking engagements, fundraisers, product reviews — even acting pay.

Karrie traveled to Seattle last month to appear in a independent short film called “The Decision.”

The plot centers around a woman trying to decide whether to continue with a pregnancy, knowing her baby will be born with Down syndrome. Karrie plays Angel, a neighbor’s daughter, who has the developmental disorder.

“When the woman visits their family and sees how they’re raising (Angel), that helps her make up her mind,” said Sriram Vegaraju, production manager.

Beyond her public life, Karrie reached a personal milestone in 2015. She graduated from Collinsville High School — after serving as queen of the Winter Ball.

“Everybody knew her,” said Tara Glynn, her special education teacher and later her counselor. “She was so social. She had a lot of friends.”

Today, Karrie volunteers at the Collinsville Maryville Troy YMCA, greeting members, scanning membership cards, folding towels and performing other duties.

She also has volunteered at a YMCA in Aruba. Her mother’s fiance, Chuck Groszek, 63, owns a home in the Caribbean island country. He has been impressed by the amount of time Sue puts in to keep Karrie happy and active.

“(Karrie) snorkels,” said Chuck, 63, a retired vocational teacher. “She swims. She can float on her back for like a half-hour. She’s a great kayaker. She’s never tipped over. She’s very stable.”

YMCA officials in the United States also tapped Karrie to appear in a promotional video that was shown to more than 1,000 directors at a national conference.

Karrie and Tyler have been dating about a year. They recently took a cooking class together.

“He likes ice cream,” she said. “He likes brownies and hot fudge. He’s funny. He’s cute. He tells funny jokes. And his favorite rock star is Hannah Montana.”

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