Kirsta Graf is well known among her peers and the faculty at Mounds View High School (MVHS) for her exuberance, positive attitude and her unwavering commitment to her school. She is a Mustang mentor, a front desk greeter, a Young Life member and the girl’s basketball team manager.
Kirsta has Down syndrome, but she has never let that keep her from her passion for performing and inspiring others. The 18-year-old senior has had a love for the stage since she was a little girl. Her mother, Alicia Graf, says it all started in a first grade drama class when her daughter played a roll in the class’s performance of the Lion King.
A more recent performance during the high school’s Winter Week talent show earned thunderous applause along with a standing ovation and a first place finish that left a few in the room a little teary eyed. Kirsta signed and danced to the Sara Bareilles hit “Brave” with the backing of friends and fellow seniors Sammie Hallgren and Tessah Indlecoffer.
“When we heard everybody, we were just like whoa,” Kirsta says excitedly. “It was a huge moment.” “It’s one of my favorite top hit songs,” she adds. “It’s about reaching out to people to be brave.”
Alicia Graf says she began teaching her daughter American Sign Language (ASL) when she was a toddler, and by the age of three she had learned over 300 signs. Then one day she just started talking, her mom says, and the signs were no longer needed as a form of communication.
She picked up sign language again her freshman year and has been enrolled in ASL courses ever since.
What may be surprising to some is that signing can be a beautiful art form, as became evident in the girls’ performance of “Brave” that inspired a lot of people at MVHS in late January. Alicia Graf says after the performance a deaf man in the audience came up and thanked the girls.
“I thought that was touching,” she says.
Sammie says the girls were not anticipating the type of reaction they received from the crowd that day.
“We just thought it would be really cool and fun for her and us and then everybody started clapping along. It was crazy,” she says. “Afterwards we just started bawling and Kirsta asks ‘Why are you crying?’ and we told her it was because we were happy.”
Sammie, Tessah and Kirsta have been friends since kindergarten. And Sammie says her peers have never viewed Kirsta as the girl with Down syndrome; she’s always just been Kirsta, the upbeat girl with an infectious smile that goes out of her way to brighten your day.
“Everyone at Mounds View knows Kirsta, she takes a lot of pride in us,” Sammie says.
One of Kirsta’s teachers for the past four years is Krista Young, who says Kirsta has always had a lot of spirit and a positive outlook, never letting anything get her down.
“It’s been cool to see her blossom and grow. Every year she has grown a little bit more,” Young says. “She’s such a meaningful part of this school.”
It’s been an exciting year for the MVHS senior, who signed and danced to “Brave” in a follow up performance the next day at the Winter Week pepfest and was later crowned Winter Week Snow Queen.
“It’s all been really exciting,” Kirsta says with a smile.
She says she has loved her experience at MVHS and is relishing the last few months of her high school career. She plans to enroll in the Career and Life Transitions program at Har Mar Mall in the fall and will later enroll in a two-year program at Bethel College for students with special needs.
Often times close friendships are lost when students graduate high school and move off to college, but Sammie says she cannot imagine Kirsta not being an important part of her life. She has fond memories going back to early childhood of her, Tessah and Kirsta singing, choreographing and performing dance numbers on a homemade stage Kirsta’s father built for her when she was seven (the stage in the lower level of the Graf’s Arden Hills home gets used to this day).
“Kirsta and I have always been close, we’ve been really good friends since kindergarten. We have really similar personalities and have been in a lot of plays together,” Sammie says.
She will be attending Wartburg College in Iowa, where she plans to study musical therapy. Sammie, who also has an older sister with Down syndrome, says she wants to combine her love of singing, performing and working with people with disabilities. She says she looks forward to having Kirsta come down to Iowa to hang out on the weekends, and looks forward to having her in her wedding some day.
“She in a lot of ways can be my rock. She always has such a positive attitude,” Sammie says of Kirsta. “She’s the sparkle girl. She sparkles in peoples lives and just lights up peoples day.”
Joshua Nielsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 651-748-7824.