Everyone deserves to feel beautiful, and this 29-year-old model wanted to make sure his older sister had that chance.
Recently listed as one of Harper Bazaar's 25 Hottest Guys to Follow on Instagram, Chris Garafola had a surprise for his older sister who has special needs and it has been an inspiration to us all!
With more than 50,000 followers on Instagram, Garafola wants to share his success while bringing happiness to his older sister, Brittany, who has Down Syndrome.
“She’s been my best friend from the beginning,” Garafola, who lives in Boston, tells PEOPLE. “For me, my purpose here is to make sure my sister has a good life, is protected and is healthy. Her happiness is my happiness, and that has held true from when we were kids to today.”
Fellow photographers, stylists, hair & makeup, studio owners, videographers, friends -- lend me your heart and your ears! My beautiful sister Brittany has always told me she's wanted to model like her brother. I always tell her she is already a model, yet she still wants to do what I do. I don't blame her, she deserves everything I do in this life, so I'd love to make that happen for her on a special day. This July, Brittany will be staying with me in Boston for her birthday. I thought it would be very special for brit and I to do a quick little shoot together for a birthday present. It will be something we will always cherish and remember. Not to mention, I've always wanted a shot of Brittany and I in my portfolio anyway. First, because she's my life and brings out my true beauty. Secondly, there needs to be more awareness / a push to get people with special needs in advertising and marketing! People with special needs represent a huge portion of our population yet almost 100% of the advertisements and marketing showcase people without special needs. I don't care how "beautiful" you are on the outside -- true beauty is a package deal. People with special needs have more light in their hearts than stars in the sky. Brittany will be here in Boston July 19th or 20th. I would also love to get her haircut and pick out a cute outfit or two. Nothing is set in stone, but if you may be interested in making Brittany's day, and mine, let me know. I'd love to make this a beautiful day to remember. #TeamGarafola Love, Chris
The family grew up in Ludlow, Vermont and the pair grew very close after their parents separated when they were young.
Garafola quickly became a champion for his sister, who had to undergo several open heart surgeries as a child. This financial and emotion strain meant that their mother had to work multiple jobs to support them.
"Our hardships only made us stronger and brought us closer together as a family," he said.
His older sister often looked up to what he did. If he came home with a new phone, she wanted one too. When he moved away to go to college, Brittany also wanted to seek her independence. That's when she moved into Heartbeet Lifesharing, a community for adults with special needs. She has lived there for the last 10 years now.
After Garafola took up modelling a few years ago, naturally Brittany wanted to give it a try just like her brother.
“When I started to show her the commercials or magazines I was in, she would tell me she wanted to do it, too,” Garafola says. “But I told her that she was already a model—I was trying to be like her!”
Brittany still continued to bring up her desire to model and that gave her big brother an idea.
Since their mother Kerryann was planning to drive Brittany from Vermont to Boston for her 32nd birthday, he figured he could use his network to put together a huge surprise for his sister.
Recruiting photographers, videographers, stylists, and make-up artists, he was able to put together a professional photo shoot to make his sister's dream come true, and the results were amazing.
“Birthdays are huge for Brittany, she is talking about her birthday months before it happens,” Garafola says, laughing.
Waking up on her birthday in her brother's home in Boston, she was eager to find out what her family had planned for her special day. To her disappointment, her brother told her they would simply go for a walk and grab something to eat.
“It was killing me seeing the look on her face!” Garafola recalls. “She looked at me like, ‘Come on, man, aren’t we going to do something?’"
Keeping their surprise a secret, Garafola and his mother drove Brittany to the shoot's location just outside of the city. There a team of people waiting for her and he revealed her birthday surprise.
“She started jumping up and down and giving me a hug and crying,” Garafola says of telling his sister of the photo shoot. “It was really emotional.”
Over the next few hours Brittany got dolled up by the beauty professionals and got to pose for the camera.
“She was a supermodel and she knew it, it was her day to be a real professional model,” Garafola says. “She did a lot better than many of the models that I’ve worked with, I was very impressed.”
But that wasn't all Garafola had to say.
Not only was he happy to make his big sister smile, but he wanted to draw attention and raise awareness for people with disabilities.
"I am who I am today entirely because of my sister. It’s because of my sister, that I don’t take life’s little blessings for granted," says Chris. "Brittany has shown me everything from feeling beautiful and confident in my own skin, to how to love unconditionally," he said.
One in every 700 babies in the United States is born with Down Syndrome. This happens when someone is born with an extra copy of chromosome 21. About 6,000 babies in the U.S. are born with this chromosomal condition each year.
“I want people to question what they think is beautiful, and realize that everybody should have the same opportunities in this life no matter where they’re born or what they’re born with,” he says.
Now, Garafola is taking on the tough task of trying to top his birthday surprise for next year!
“She’s already talking about her next birthday, right now!” he says.