Teenage model Annika Van Vliet with father Troy and mother Lisa. Photo submitted to The B.C. Catholic

Model more than a smile and pretty face

By  Nicholas Elbers, Canadian Catholic News
  • January 6, 2024

Watching Annika Van Vliet sit between her parents in their South Surrey, B.C., home, it’s hard to believe the 15-year-old has walked a fashion runway in Paris and had her photo featured on the billboards of Times Square. 

“I try not to say, ‘Hey, I am a star,’ ” she says with a shy smile before burying her face in her hands in embarrassment. 

There is a moment of silence and then a sudden change. She jumps up from the couch to run across the room.

“Here, let me show you my walk,” she says excitedly as her face takes on a determined serenity before she struts gracefully across the room. A smile returns to her face. 

Since Annika’s mother, Lisa, first encouraged her to try modelling a few years ago, the young teen with Down syndrome has found international success, walking the runway at Paris Fashion Week, strutting her stuff at Toronto Kids Fashion Week in Calgary in 2022 and having her images displayed around New York’s Times Square for a National Down Syndrome Society awareness campaign. 

Perhaps it’s a statement of the obvious, but this is far from ordinary. In a fashion world that elevates the strange and exotic,  to see a person with a visible disability cruising the catwalk is a testament to her hard work, dedication and skill. 

“She has always been a trouper,” said her mother. “If she wants something she will go to the ends of the earth to get it.” 

Learning to move like a professional model is no simple task. Annika’s success is even more impressive given the myriad health issues that complicate life for someone with Down syndrome, among them hyper flexibility, a condition which makes joints unstable without support. These complications make developing modelling skills more difficult. Just her walk is the result of hours of hard work with a professional modelling coach and a physical trainer. 

Annika has become a beacon of hope for parents of Down syndrome children worried about their future, and her modelling challenges societal preconceptions of what those with Down syndrome are capable of. 

Annika told The B.C. Catholic she is living her dream as a model and loves what she does because of the smiles she sees from the runway. 

“When I see my family smiling, and glowing like the sun, it brings me joy,” she said with excitement. “It reminds me of love.”

Lisa was once a model herself and has been a considerable support for Annika, who says getting to travel to places like Paris and Calgary with her mom is one of her favourite things about her new modelling career. 

In addition to the support of her family, the John Paul II Academy student has received tremendous support from her school community and Star of the Sea Parish, where her family attends Mass. She has grown a considerable social media following and has been a hit with the “church ladies” after Sunday Mass. 

All daughters hold a special place in their father’s heart, but few fathers can say their children inspired them to build an entire school. Troy Van Vliet is the exception. 

The chair of the John Paul II Academy Foundation Board said he was convinced of the need for another Surrey Catholic high school when he realized the group of friends Annika had built up at Star of the Sea Elementary would be scattered to the wind upon graduation. Not only would this disrupt her friendships, but the group had become an important part of her support network. 

Troy said he remembers thinking, “It would be a shame to see their friendship group break up.”

Add to this the fact that as Surrey’s only Catholic high school, Holy Cross Regional Secondary had become increasingly inaccessible for many South Surrey families as the city’s growth and increased traffic added 20 minutes to the commute to the school. As a result, JPII Academy felt like more of a necessity than just a good idea. 

The school, currently under construction in South Surrey, is expected to be completed on time for September 2025, said Troy, for whom the new building represents more than just a solution to a practical problem. The school chapel will be a central part of the school’s architectural design 

“You will be able to see the stained glass from all over the school, as a beautiful and constant reminder to the students of what the school stands for,” he said. 

Much the way his daughter is now a reminder to the world of the dignity of all God’s children.

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