Photo by Jeff Vorva
Mary Cate Lynch, left, receives thumbs-up from Northeast Elementary School sixth-grader Pearl Opokue during an assembly in October urging students to Choose Kind when dealing with someone who looks a little different.
Mary Cate Lynch has become a real-life “Wonder.’
When she was born two years ago with a facial deformity, few knew that this face would become a face of kindness.
In October, Northeast Elementary, in Evergreen Park, hosted its former hometown resident, Kerry Ryan Lynch, now of Beverly, and her daughter, Mary Cate for its ‘Choose Kind’ presentation.
Mary Cate, who turns 3 on Dec. 8, and her mother have made it a mission to get out and tell Mary Cate’s story to young school kids so that when they see someone who is a little different, they won’t be quick to heckle.
Over the past year, the two have been schooling students on Apert Syndrome, a craniofacial condition effecting Mary Cate’s head, feet and hands. Lynch said, “We’ve been in about 60 schools so far and have another 50 scheduled for 2015.”
The stop in Evergreen Park was special for the school and the Ryan family because students at Northeast are reading “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. This is a novel about a fifth grader with a facial deformity, whom after living life sheltered from the public, musters the courage to attend public school.
Jackie Janicke, Principal of Northeast said, “When I spoke with Kerry about her Choose Kind campaign, I learned it coincided with ‘Wonder.’ I purchased several copies and some of the upperclassmen have been reading the book to the lower grade levels during our lunch period.”
The lead character evokes an anti-bullying campaign that, in reality, is blurring the lines of fiction as Lynch and Mary Cate are collaborating in spreading the author’s precept of kind awareness.
“Reading the book, Wonder, is where my ‘Choose Kind’ slogan came from,” Lynch said. “There’s a chapter in the book titled ‘Choose Kind.’ ’’ Lynch said. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”
Northeast sixth graders Pearl Opokue and Alyssa Purvis eagerly their feedback after hearing the Choose Kind presentation. Opokue said, “Now if I saw a kid with Apert Syndrome, I would be excited to go say ‘hi.’ ”
“We shouldn’t judge,” Purvis said. “We should always be kind, most of the people you think are different, are usually just like you.”
Janicke said District 124 is focused on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which is a district wide approach to creating a positive and safe climate where students can learn and grow.
“Since becoming principal three years ago, I’ve seen a noticeable difference in how students treat one another,’’ she said. “Our PBIS system teaches and sets expectations for students while providing tools for them to make good choices.”
Northeast also has a Kindness Club.
“Our cap on enrollment was 20 students but my heart forced me to squeeze in a few extras,’’ Janicke said. “We had 50 students sign up.”
She said they narrowed their candidates by choosing the most compelling essays students wrote on how they would spread kindness within the school.
The facility of Northeast put its motto of spreading kindness into action during the assembly with Mary Cate by wearing pink and white t-shirts that read, “Northeast School, Choose Kind.” Janicke credits her staff with the gesture saying, “I have an awesome team of people who have great ideas. They always make sure our events run smoothly.”
Lynch expressed gratitude to Northeast in a posting on her My Mary Cate Facebook page. Lynch said she posts’ more regularly on FB than her blog.
“I created the www.mymarycate.org blog to educate others about Mary Cate’s diagnosis,’’ Lynch said. “It became my therapy. I didn’t want pity, my husband, Chris, and I always find the positive side.”
Over time Lynch said her blog became a hub for families seeking information about Apert Syndrome.
With each school visit, this family’s crusade seems to gain momentum. Some consider them to be local celebrities. Their story has been printed in numerous publications as well as televised on ABC 7- Chicago, the Today Show-Australia, and just last month, they appeared on Windy City Live.
During that interview, like a typical two-year old, Mary Cate wandered from the questioning of co-host Val Warner, slipped through the arms of her parents and climbed into the lap of her grandmother, Maun Ryan who was sitting smack in the middle of the audience. Maun and husband, Bob Ryan, are lifelong residents of Evergreen Park and still live in the family home where Lynch grew up.
Lynch is an alumni of Most Holy Redeemer and Mother McAuley, which inducted her into the McAuley Hall of Honor on October 25.
Lynch’s noticeably supportive parents were also in attendance at the Northeast presentation. They helped keep an eye on Mary Cate’s, one-year-old, little sister, Maggie.
Maggie has become increasingly visible at Choose Kind events. Lynch laughed, “I’m in favor of starting the conversation of acceptance early.”
“During one school presentation, a child asked, ‘Why does Mary Cate have Apert Syndrome but not Maggie?’ ’’ Lynch said. “I told her the same thing I tell everyone else -- because God decided to make Mary Cate look a little bit different.
“And that’s ok, we’re all different.”