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Alumni Profile: Carissa Carroll ’03

Jack, Chris, Luke, Carissa, and Taylor Carroll

They say necessity is the mother of invention. When Carissa (Nieuwboer) ’03 and Assistant Professor of Human Kinetics and Applied Health Sciences Chris Carroll ’04 became parents to Jack, it inspired the invention of a support network and celebration of life that hadn’t existed for them when he was born.

Following a healthy, typical pregnancy, Jack was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after birth—tersely, clinically, when Carissa wasn’t even in the room.

“Our minds so easily go to our fears,” Carissa recalls of those first hours. “A nurse eventually walked in and said, ‘Look at your beautiful baby.’ We had been praying over this guy—just like we had prayed over his brother—and here we were worrying about whether people would accept him. It took a complete stranger to remind us that God has a plan for his life.”

Their first hours and days with Jack brought grief over the baby they thought they would bring home, and they tried to understand how life was going to be different from what they had planned initially. It was a process Carissa says that was essential to make space to love the baby they did bring home. Grief gave way to pure love as they got to know their little boy and one of their family’s best teachers. As the Carrolls reflected on the misconceptions and fears that had dominated Jack’s birth, they prayed they would be able to change that narrative for other families.

“One day, I just said ‘God, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it,’” Carissa says, choking back tears. Chris and Carissa celebrated Jack’s first birthday by doing something for other families welcoming babies with Down syndrome. They filled two baskets—dubbed “Jack’s baskets”—with toys and goodies, plus resources and hope-filled messages to help turn those babies’ births into more of a celebration than Jack’s had been.

Those first two baskets inspired a full-fledged non-profit, Jack’s Basket, whose mission is to improve the experience and support network for families welcoming kids with Down syndrome and to educate medical providers on best practices for communicating a diagnosis. To date, the organization has delivered over 325 baskets all over the world, worked with countless clinicians—including Bethel physician assistant and nurse-midwifery students—and inspired similar groups in other cities.

“I just knew God was gonna do something big,” Carissa says. “He is truly changing families’ stories.”

The success of Jack’s Basket has also helped the Carrolls take Jack’s diagnosis in stride and dream bigger about his future. When they found out about the launch of Bethel University's Inclusive Learning and Development (BUILD) program, the pair of Royals immediately began dreaming about Jack’s Welcome Week experience one day.

“I thought, ‘People with Down syndrome are going to college!’ It makes me so excited,” Carissa says. “In college, you have to make a distinct decision on how faith, and community, and God are going to be a part of your life. Being part of the Bethel community—the volleyball team—hugely impacted my life. Mostly I’m so happy that Jack will get to experience lifelong Bethel friendships, Chapel, all the things that his dad and I did—I’m just super pumped!”

The BUILD program has not only inspired the Carrolls in terms of what’s possible for Jack—they’ve also felt its impact on the rest of Bethel’s campus.

“When I bring my little Jack in—when he’s up on Chris’ shoulders—students just love him. Those students are different because they have classmates who are just like Jack,” Carissa says. The wider culture is becoming more accepting of people with Down syndrome, too, and including them in opportunities they didn’t previously have.

“Years ago, most families were only told about the delays they could expect—not the possibilities. The attitude is changing—there are more people asking ‘why not?’” Carissa says. But today, 30% fewer people are born with Down syndrome, mostly because of earlier diagnoses and decisions to terminate pregnancies. “Craig Groeschel said, ‘What breaks your heart drives your passion.’ That statistic breaks my heart. My son’s life is not to be feared.”

Carissa is currently on leave from the Roseville School District—where she taught physical education for 12 years—so that she can focus on being a mom and executive director of the growing organization, which recently expanded into its own office space. She hopes that as Jack’s Baskets are delivered to more and more families, the conversation about Down syndrome will shift even further from fear to celebration.

“Being a mom has changed me. I think that if we realized that every person is someone’s child—we’d be more kind, compassionate, loving, realizing every person should be loved and valued, and that it shouldn’t be based on the number of chromosomes they have,” she says.

JCI Minnesota (formerly Minnesota Jaycees) recently recognized Carissa as one of ten Outstanding Young Minnesotans, commending the work that has impacted so many families since Jack’s Basket began. Since launching Jack’s Basket, she has spoken at conferences and events advocating for life and greater inclusion of those with Down syndrome. The Carroll family—and Jack’s Basket—has been featured by local news outlets including the Pioneer Press, WCCO, and most recently, Twin Cities Live and Minnesota Parent. Find out more about Jack’s Basket.

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