She wore a long-sleeve shirt patterned with planets, rockets and the infinite dreams of space travel.
A white bow adorned by two hearing aids sat lightly atop her head, completing an outfit that matched her mother’s. Her pumpkin-orange pants complimented the warmth of her presence as she began to take to the crowd.
She was 1-year-old Finlee June, and for the past few weeks, 130 first graders at Newberry Elementary had been awaiting her. They had read “We’re All Wonders,” R.J. Palacios’ New York Times bestseller on the beauty of inclusion through the story of Auggie — a boy whose facial differences asks readers to change the way they see, to look with kindness and find wonder.
Finlee, a Newberry native, has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of facial bones and tissues. But as she sat in front of the students gathered in the cafeteria on a late January morning, she wasn’t an outcast and she wasn’t just there to spread awareness. To first grader Johntay Wilson, Finlee was like Auggie.
“She does ordinary stuff, and she does the same things as little kids,” Wilson said. “We play ball, and she loves lollipops, and she does ordinary stuff, she is a wonder.”
Morgan Douglas, a first grade teacher at Newberry Elementary, had been following Finlee’s story on Facebook when she realized that there was a valuable connection to be made between Finlee and a young generation of inclusive members of the Newberry community.
“It’s such a personal connection. Meeting Finlee is so much more because they can have that personal connection with her,” she said. “One day she’ll be at school with them and they’re going to have that background knowledge to include her and to love her and to make her part of our school community.”
As Finlee found common ground with the students in a game of catch, her mother, Lorin Messer, spoke of their journey and fielded questions that drew them ever closer to the audience.
“Finlee is going to grow up here,” Messer said. “I think the more people that know her, the easier it’s going to be for everybody to go ahead and get her in, get her established, get her confidence boosted. She’ll know ‘Hey, I have friends. Friends have me.’”
Messer, who hopes that the elementary school visit isn’t the last of its kind, recognizes that change won’t be easy. But much like in Palacios’ “We’re All Wonders,” the change that began with her can spread to others.
“The more it benefits, the more places we’ll go. There’s nowhere we wouldn’t go if it benefits her — if it benefits other children,” Messer said.
“It helps the world we’re living in to help others understand this stuff matters. It’s important, these are humans, and they deserve what all of us deserve,” Messer said.
By the end of her visit, Finlee had played catch with just about every kid in the crowd. She had gotten the chance to sit among them, to hear the questions they had for her, and most importantly, according to first grade teacher Mackenzie Leonardo, to feel a part of a community that welcomed her with open arms.
“Anybody here could’ve seen that it was a genuine joy to actually meet somebody who had Treacher Collins Syndrome — the excitement on their faces just asking questions or wanting to tell her a story,” Leonardo said.
As Finlee retired to her parents’ arms at the end of an exciting day, the students at Newberry Elementary couldn’t help but to take a final look back at the friend they had made as they lined up for dismissal. To them, she was Finlee June, a future Fighting Panther, a friend, a wonder.
“Finlee does look different, but she’s really not. Finlee has a lot more in common with you than you may think upon first meeting,” Messer said. “She’s fun. She’s a kid. She cries. She laughs. She does kid things. She loves chips. I just want them to know even though she is different, she’s still human just like we are.”