MORGAN PARK — Students at Clissold Elementary School pledged Thursday "when given the choice between being right and being kind, I will choose kind."
The fourth- through sixth-grade classes made this promise after Mary Cate Lynch, 3, of Beverly visited their school at 2350 W. 110th Place in Morgan Park.
Mary Cate Lynch celebrated her third birthday on Monday. She was born with Apert syndrome — a rare disorder caused by an extra protein on one of her genes.
The result is extra bones and cartilage, causing a misshapen skull and melded fingers and toes. About 25 children are born with this craniofacial condition in the United States each year, said Kerry Ryan Lynch, Mary Cate's mom.
"There is no rhyme or reason for it," Lynch told the 170 students gathered in Clissold's auditorium.
The blog was initially intended to answer questions from friends and family, many of whom were unaware of Mary Cate's condition and eager to see pictures of the new baby.
But the blog soon became a clearinghouse for parents of children born with Apert syndrome. Lynch continues to receives monthly emails from around the world from mothers and fathers desperate for information following their child's diagnosis.
Lynch opted to further her efforts to educate her neighborhood on Apert syndrome five months later. She was fueled by an incident in the local park. While playing near Mary Cate, a boy asked his mother, "Mom, why does that baby look weird?"
Perhaps embarrassed, the woman scooped up the curious boy and fled. That's when Lynch decided to take the proactive approach of bringing Mary Cate to schools throughout the Southwest Side. While there, Lynch explains Apert syndrome and talks to children about what it's like to look different.
"I can't tell you how many people stare or go out of their way to avoid us," Lynch said.
Public and private schools throughout the area soon began requesting a date with Mary Cate. As of Thursday, Lynch and her daughter had visited 65 schools and are booked into May.
Lynch typically coordinates with teachers prior to her visit and recommends students read "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio. This New York Times bestseller details the life of August Pullman, a boy born with a facial deformity. It's told from his perspective, as well as the perspective of classmates, his sister, her boyfriend and others.
"Mary Cate is pretty much like a real-life Auggie," Lynch said.
After students read the book, Mary Cate joins the classroom for a discussion. Her presence brings to life the discourse on things like bullying and what it means to look unusual. Mary Cate's introduction often comes just as preteens begin to feel self-absorbed and even act unwelcoming toward others, Lynch said.
Mary Cate has become one of the most popular children on the playground as a result. Rather than avoid eye contact, neighborhood children now make it a point interact with the little girl that everyone knows and loves.
"There's nothing scary about it. She's just a kid," Lynch explained to the students at Clissold.
Emily Rohrbach, 12, of Morgan Park was on page 104 of the 320-page "Wonder" on Wednesday. The sixth-grader said she struggled to envision the Auggie looked like while reading. So she'd picture Mary Cate.
"Sometimes I think about what would happen if I was in those shoes," Rohrbach said.
Catie Schultz, 9, of Morgan Park knew Mary Cate long before she came to visit her school. In April, Schultz had a birthday party and invited about eight of her friends, including her pal with Apert syndrome.
Rather than gifts, Schultz asked partygoers to make a donation to help pay for Mary Cate's future medical expenses. It's estimated she'll need upward of 60 surgeries throughout her lifetime.
Schultz raised $172. And instead of goodie bags, all attendees left with a copy of "Wonder."
"I already had a lot of toys, and I thought this was a good charity to give to," Schultz said.
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