A 29-year-old model threw a surprise birthday photo shoot for his sweet older sister, who has special needs and has been a source of inspiration all of his life.
Chris Garafola is a model who was recently listed as one of Harper Bazaar’s 25 Hottest Guys to Follow on Instagram, and has more than 50,000 followers on the social platform and even starred alongside Gisele Bündchen in a commercial for Falabella. While Chris is happy about his success, he says the thing that matters most to him is the happiness of 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.”
While they were growing up in Ludlow, Vermont, Garafola says Brittany often wanted to do the things he did. If he came home with a new phone, she wanted a phone. When he moved from home and went to college, Brittany wanted to seek her independence, too. This led her to join Heartbeet Lifesharing, a community of adults with special needs in Vermont, where she has lived for almost the last 10 years.
So, when Garafola took up modeling a few years ago, Brittany naturally wanted to give it a go just like her little bro.
“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!”
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Nevertheless, Brittany brought it up many times, and it gave Garafolas an idea—since their mother, Kerryann, was going to drive Brittany down from Vermont to Boston for her 32nd birthday on July 20, he figured he could utilize his social media network to recruit photographers, videographers, stylists and make-up artists to throw his sister a professional photo shoot and make her dream come true.
Garafola took to Facebook to call for volunteers in early May, and was contacted by dozens of eager professionals from all over the world. A short time after, Chris gathered a team that included HIVE.Studio and Bearwalk Cinema and brainstormed how they would pull off their surprise—and he felt the pressure mounting.
“Birthdays are huge for Brittany, she is talking about her birthday months before it happens,” Garafola says, laughing.
On the morning of her special day, Brittany woke up at her brother’s home in Boston excited to find out what her family had in store. To her disappointment, Garafola told her they would simply go for a walk or 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?’ “
While it was difficult keeping the surprise a secret, Garafola and Kerryann were able to keep it under wraps long enough to drive Brittany to the shoot’s location just outside of the city. When she saw the team of people waiting, Garafola revealed the reason they were there.
“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.”
Brittany spent the next few hours getting dolled up by a team of beauty professionals and voguing for the camera, and she took her role very seriously.
“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.”
Garafola is glad he was able to make his big sister smile, and he hopes their photos can raise awareness for people with disabilities.
About one in every 700 babies in the country is born with Down syndrome, which occurs when an individual is born with an extra copy of chromosome 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 6,000 babies in the U.S. are born with the 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.
As for now, Garafola is going to have to start thinking of ways to top this spectacular idea next year.
“She’s already talking about her next birthday, right now!” he says.