Pom­fret fam­ily en­cour­ages peo­ple to see be­yond fa­cial dif­fer­ences

Pom­fret fam­ily en­cour­ages peo­ple to see be­yond fa­cial dif­fer­ences

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By SARA NEW­MAN snew­man@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @in­dy_­com­mu­nity

Anti-bul­ly­ing mes­sages are preva­lent in to­day’s schools, but some kids still may not un­der­stand how mock­ing some­one for their dif­fer­ences can have pro­found ef­fects that last well be­yond the school day.

“It breaks my heart,” Michelle At­fi­mos of Pom­fret said of the bul­ly­ing her son, Kyle, 8, has re­ceived at school.

Kyle At­fi­mos was born with a cleft lip and palate which left a vis­i­ble gap on the right side of his up­per lip. He re­cently had surgery to elim­i­nate the gap — a bone graft process that took bone from his hip and added it to the gap in his mouth — which made the cleft lip less vis­i­ble, but left Kyle with a slight limp and out of school for three weeks.

With help from in­di­vid­u­als from the Chil­dren’s Cran­io­fa­cial As­so­ci­a­tion (CCA), the At­fi­mos fam­ily has breathed a sigh of re­lief and helped Kyle re­al­ize he is not so dif­fer­ent in the world as he of­ten feels at school.

Cleft lip, with or with­out cleft palate, af­fects one in 700 ba­bies an­nu­ally, and is the fourth most com­mon birth de­fect in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the as­so­ci­a­tion. De­spite this, Michelle and Kyle said they knew vir­tu­ally no one else that had it.

Af­ter a few in­stances when Kyle came home from school cry­ing af­ter bul­ly­ing on the bus, Michelle said she and her hus­band, Nick, con­sid­ered pri­vate school for him but re­al­ized they couldn’t af­ford it.

“That hurt me as a par­ent to see that and I can’t imag­ine how it is for him when he’s not there,” Michelle said.

“Es­pe­cially be­cause you can’t buy me a new face,” Kyle added.

Dur­ing a yearly clinic visit when Kyle was 8 years old, Michelle said she re­al­ized how se­ri­ous the bul­ly­ing was af­fect­ing her son when a psy­chol­o­gist said Kyle should at­tend coun­sel­ing. Michelle said she be­gan to see how much this is­sue could grow for Kyle as he got older.

“I spoke with oth­ers and they said, ‘Kids will be kids,’” Michelle said in re­sponse to the bul­ly­ing. “He’s kinda shy and he’s a kind kid and I’ve told him to stand up for him­self, but he also doesn’t want to be a bully.”

Michelle set out to find sup­port through the clinic and so­cial net­works with no luck un­til she con­tacted CCA. The or­ga­ni­za­tion sent brochures and in­for­ma­tion on Kyle’s con­di­tion and its yearly re­treat. It wasn’t un­til Michelle and Kyle read the book “Won­der,” by R. J. Pala­cio, now be­ing made into a movie, that Kyle’s eyes opened to dis­cover he was not the only one with this con­di­tion.

The book de­picts the tale of a young boy, Aug­gie, born with a fa­cial de­for­mity and is about to be­gin fifth grade at a main­stream school. As the new kid, the book fol­lows Aug­gie’s quest to show his class­mates how he is just like them de­spite ap­pear­ances.

“It made me feel like I wasn’t the only one and that some peo­ple have it even worse than I do,” Kyle said of the book. “It made me feel good and I’m sure it made other kids feel good, too.”

The fam­ily was also able to pull to­gether re­sources to travel to Ft. Laud­erdale, Fla., to at­tend the as­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual Cher’s Fam­ily Re­treat. Held in June, the event aims to pro­vide in­di­vid­u­als af­fected by a fa­cial dif­fer­ence, their sib­lings and par­ents an op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with oth­ers who have en­dured sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. Again, Kyle found him­self among chil­dren and fam­i­lies just like his, in­clud­ing a lo­cal fam­ily from Bel Al­ton.

“The re­treat was so heart­warm­ing be­cause these kids would just come up to us and hug us, like they knew we were safe to come up to. We weren’t go­ing to be afraid of their fa­cial dif­fer­ence,” Michelle said.

“My fa­vorite part of the re­treat was when I made new friends and found a friend that lives nearby,” Kyle said.

Now that Kyle has had his surgery, Michelle hopes the bul­ly­ing will sub­side and the con­fi­dence Kyle built up over that sum­mer will not di­min­ish dur­ing the school year. She aims to en­cour­age lo­cal schools to add the book, “Won­der,” to their cur­ricu­lum — she says it en­cour­ages kids to “choose kind” — and take ad­van­tage of a field trip grant for Kyle and his class­mates to at­tend the movie pre­mier of “Won­der,” in the­aters April 7, 2017.

Above all, she said she wants her son to be happy.

“I just want to know that he’s OK and is happy and isn’t wor­ried about go­ing back to school,” Michelle said.

Kyle At­fi­mos, 8, smiles with “Won­der,” a book that is now be­ing made into a movie. The book helped him re­al­ize his dif­fer­ences — be­ing born with a cleft lip and palate — did not war­rant bul­ly­ing. His mother, Michelle, hopes lo­cal schools will in­cor­po­rate the book into their cur­ricu­lum be­cause of its over­all “choose kind” mes­sage.

STAFF PHOTOS BY SARA NEW­MAN

Kyle At­fi­mos and his mother, Michelle, smile with var­i­ous gifts they’ve re­ceived from friends and strangers af­ter at­tend­ing the Chil­dren’s Cran­io­fa­cial As­so­ci­a­tion an­nual re­treat. Kyle was born with a cleft lip and palate that has made him the sub­ject of bul­ly­ing at school. Michelle set up a post of­fice box ad­dress where Kyle is of­ten sent en­cour­ag­ing cards and gifts.

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