First-grade students at Newberry Elementary School learned an essential lesson on Tuesday morning— that differences do exist, but they do not make a person less human.
Finlee June Messer is a 2-year-old Newberry local who has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the development of facial bones and tissues. It can range from very mild, where you can’t even notice, to severe, meaning the child will be born with a small lower jaw and undeveloped cheekbones and ears.
This is a rare disorder, with fewer than 20,000 cases annually in the United States.
Finlee and her parents, Lorin and Jeremy, visited Newberry Elementary School so the 130 first graders could meet Finlee, learn what life with Treacher Collins Syndrome is like, and ask questions.
“With Finlee, she has a tiny jaw, and it has affected her breathing right at birth,” Lorin said. “The doctors did an immediate tracheostomy to ensure she was breathing and not losing oxygen. She still has the breathing tube, even though she has grown, her ears did not develop much at all, so she has hearing aids, and she cannot eat by mouth yet so she uses a feeding tube.”
The students have been reading a book called “We’re All Wonders” by R.J. Palacio. The New York Times bestseller tells the story of Auggie, a boy with facial deformities who experiences bullying due to his appearance. The story shows what it is like to live and experience everyday life in Auggie’s footsteps. It explores the world in which he feels like the other kids but isn’t always seen as that. It teaches the readers that we are all wonders no matter how we look.
The book is a children’s picture book version of the author’s novel “Wonder,” the basis of the 2017 feature film by the same name.
Newberry teachers and staff felt that inviting Finlee and her parents to the school would help exemplify the book’s lesson to the first graders.
Finlee’s parents sat in front of the cafeteria stage answering questions regarding Finlee’s hearing, breathing, appetite, and favorite activities.
While Lorin and Jeremy informed students about Treacher Collins Syndrome, Finlee showcased her newest skill, walking, and played with a multi-colored ball in front of a crowd of kids.
Lorin explained that one of the key takeaways she hopes the students received from Tuesday’s Q&A is that because Finlee looks different, it doesn’t mean she is different. She has feelings, emotions, and skills. They may be different from other kids, but we are all different at the end of the day.
“I think another important thing to get out of today is acceptance,” Lorin said. “Even though she doesn’t look like the other kids, she still deserves a place in the school, family, and group. It is nice for these kids to see Finlee in person and realize she doesn’t look like me, but we can still be friends.”
First-grade teachers Morgan Douglas and Mackenzie Leonardo found Finlee on Facebook over a year ago.
After following Finlee’s journey, the two teachers felt it would be a great idea to have Finlee and her family visit Newberry Elementary for January’s academic lesson.
“Ms. Leonardo and I both follow their Facebook group, and one of the benchmarks we are currently teaching is the moral of the story,” said Douglas in an interview. “We took this benchmark and connected it to real life with Finlee, who is right in our hometown.”
Leonardo explained that the curriculum also focuses on how each student considers themselves to be “wonders.”
“Everyone in our classrooms is different,” Leonard said. “We must embrace the differences and take that out into the world and realize that everyone is a ‘wonder’ in their own special way.”
Lorin created the Facebook page Finlee June’s Journey, where each post highlights a part of Finlee’s life. It has helped the June family connect with other families that have children with the syndrome and get resources and additional information.
The family also has a gofundme that utilizes the donations strictly for Finlee’s benefit.
“We use the money for hearing aids and hearing aid headbands since they aren’t covered by insurance, as well as our travel to and from the doctors,” Lorin said.