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'Wonder' novel brought to life for Valley students

A Valley medical clinic is adopting the novel "Wonder" to teach children about cranial facial differences.
Sarah Woolworth speaks to a class about growing up with a craniofacial difference.

A Valley medical clinic that treats cranial-facial syndromes is using one of its patients and a bestselling book to educate school children about an old adage. You know the one, about a book's cover.

"You just can't judge someone by what you see on the outside," said 5th grader Charlie Palmer, sitting at his desk on a recent afternoon at Madison Elementary School in Phoenix.

The Barrow Cleft and Craniofacial Center had just given its presentation to the class. 20 year-old patient Sarah Woolworth gave a speech, using a power point presentation of photos of her life. Sarah was born with a cranial-facial abnormality that impacts the development of her ear canals, jaw and cleft pallet. She's undergone surgeries to re-align her jaw and relied on a trach tube in her neck to breathe most of her life.

Sarah described aspiring to be a cowgirl, joining the high school drama club, and loving to read. She also discussed getting stares from peers, being misjudged as mentally disabled, and being asked by one classmate, "What's that thing growing out of your neck?"

With a plain-spoken and lighthearted tone, Sarah told the young audience she learned to rise above it all.

"In high school I just didn't care. I was like, I'm different. You're different. We're all different. Let's party!" Woolworth said.

Woolworth's inspirational message was enhanced because students read the book "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio. It describes a fictitious boy named August who, after being home schooled, attends public school for the first time. He enters the 5th grade, when kids are impressionable and sometimes downright mean to each other. Like Woolworth, August has a cranial-facial syndrome that alters the appearance of his face and causes health complications.

"There aren't a lot of books about cranial-facial differences; they just don't exist. This one is written well and has been embraced," said Lori Takeuchi with Barrow Cleft and Craniofacial Center.

The book demonstrates how even adults can misjudge a person based on how they look. It also challenges the reader to contemplate a different kind of misperception: that peers who appear attractive and confident on the outside must not experience trials.

In other words, perception is usually never reality.

After Woolworth's speech, two students participated in an object lesson. They poured toothpaste from a tube. Hurtful words, they were told, are like toothpaste. Once stated, they cannot be put back.

The Barrow Cleft and Craniofacial Center's administrators would like to bring the presentation to more schools that implement the book into their curriculum. The outreach effort is a component of the center's "Hello Human Kindness" campaign.

"Our hope is when they (students) are out in the community and they meet someone with a cranial-facial difference, they'll approach that person just like any other person and not treat them any differently," Takeuchi said.

Palmer said he appreciated Woolworth's message and her personality.

"It was pretty special. She looked a little different, but it didn't really matter. She was a really nice person," Palmer said.

Educators who are interested in bringing the Barrow Cleft and Cranial Facial Center's presentation to their school can contact the center directly.

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