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Vickroy: Beverly mom on mission of kindness

Kerry Lynch sits with her daughter Mary Cate (2). Mary Catherine Lynch (2) was born with very rare conditiknown as

Kerry Lynch sits with her daughter Mary Cate (2). Mary Catherine Lynch (2) was born with a very rare condition known as Apert Syndrome which effects the development of the hands, feet and facial bones. at the Lynch home, Monday, August 4th, 2014, in Chicago. | Gary Middendorf/for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 11, 2014 6:10AM



The book sat on Kerry Lynch’s nightstand for a good two months.

“I couldn’t bring myself to read it, just because I knew it was going to mirror our life,” she said.

The book was “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, and the life was that of a child with craniofacial syndrome.

But like the bestseller’s title promises, once the mother of two from Chicago’s Beverly community cracked the cover last summer, she couldn’t put it down.

In addition to giving her insight into what lies ahead for her 2-year-old daughter, Mary Cate, the book has blessed her with a platform from which to encourage people to embrace differences.

Over the past year, Kerry and Mary Cate have become local heroes, visiting more than 30 schools and summer camps with a simple quest: to lessen fear and, hence, cruelty, by raising awareness. Their message, based on Palacio’s book, is “Choose Kind.”

“People are afraid. They’ve never seen someone with Apert syndrome or a craniofacial syndrome before. I understand their fears,” Kerry said. “I was terrified the day she was born, and I’m a nurse.”

Apert syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that is marked by premature fusion of the skull, as well as webbed feet and hands. Only 25 babies a year are born with it the United States, Kerry said.

Though Mary Cate had two surgeries during her first year to separate toes and all but two of fingers on each hand, she has multiple operations and medical procedures to come. The worst will be around age 9 when a halo will be screwed into a part of her skull in an attempt to stretch certain facial bones.

By all indications, hers will be a challenged life. And that is why Kerry, a native of Evergreen Park, and her husband, Chris, who grew up in Oak Forest, are convinced she was born to them.

It was early on, during one of their daily trips to the neonatal intensive care unit at Prentice Hospital, that Kerry asked aloud why this was happening to them.

“Chris said, ‘Look, there are all these other babies in the NIC-U that no one is coming to see,’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Think of all those other babies. If she had been born to one of those other families, who knows what would have happened to her? We are going to be able to provide a good life for her. We’re educated, we have good families, we have good friends. That’s why she was born to us — because God knew we’d be able to make an incredible life for her.’ ”

But that doesn’t prevent those awkward public moments when people either stare or deliberately look away. It was one such moment, when a child at a nearby park asked, “What’s wrong with that baby’s face?” that convinced Kerry she had to do something to pave her daughter’s path through life with as much enlightenment and kindness as possible.

On Kerry and Mary Cate’s school visits, which have included stops at Holy Redeemer, Hometown, Kolmar and Christ the King schools, Kerry encourages students to ask questions while Mary Cate behaves like any ordinary 2-year-old, laughing, goofing and clapping her hands. She knows sign language and impresses the kids by showing them her favorite sign — the one for candy.

“The kids love that; it’s something they can connect with her on,” Kerry said.

“We just talk about accepting disabilities and accepting differences because we’re all different,” she said.

Typically, by the end of each session, the students are hugging Mary Cate and applauding.

This year, Kerry will be able to tell the students about Mary Cate’s recent run through a Schaumburg candy store. The owner of Lolli and Pops heard about Kerry’s mission and arranged to have a limousine pick up the toddler and whisk her to his shop, where she was loaded up with sweetness and gifts.

Word has spread nationally about the “Choose Kind” movement. Kerry embraces it on her blog (mymarycate.org) and Facebook page (My Mary Cate). And when she visits classrooms, it is to tout that message.

Over the summer, Kerry has been contacted by some 200 local schools about scheduling visits. St. Barnabas, St. John Fisher and Nathan Hale already are on the books.

In addition, Kerry is hoping that she and Mary Cate will be able to meet Palacio when the author comes to Chicago in October.

“I’d just like to give her a big hug,” Kerry said.

Palacio wrote “Wonder,” her first book, as an atonement for not cashing in on a teachable moment with her own kids, Kerry said. She was buying ice cream with her two sons when a girl with craniofacial syndrome entered the shop. Her then-3-year-old started to cry, and Palacio whisked her kids away, instantly regretting that she hadn’t taken the time to get to know the youngster, Kerry said.

“Wonder” is written from the point of view of a boy with severe facial deformities who is sent to middle school after being homeschooled all his life. A film adaptation is in the works, and Palacio has since written two spinoffs: “The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story” and “365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts.”

“I cried through ‘Wonder,’ ” Kerry said. “Of course there are some sad parts but I also cried feel-good tears because there are some uplifting, inspiring parts, too.”

The story has bolstered Kerry’s resolve to make sure everyone knows what it means to Choose Kind.

Also in October, Kerry will be inducted into Mother McAuley’s Hall of Fame because of her efforts to increase compassion for children with special needs. Her high school alma mater was among the first schools to sponsor a fundraiser for the Lynches just before they flew to Dallas for Mary Cate’s first surgery to separate fingers and toes. Holy Redeemer, where Kerry attended grammar school, also held a fundraiser.

Kerry, who works part time as a home health nurse, has another daughter, Maggie, who just turned 1. She isn’t sure how many school bookings she’ll be able to commit to.

“I wish I could do it five days a week, every day,” she said. “But we’re very busy. And I don’t know how Mary Cate will be about it as she gets older. She might embrace it or she might not.”

Right now, Mary Cate loves being the center of attention, she said.

“But if she wakes up tomorrow and says, ‘I don’t like this, Mom, I don’t want all this attention,’ I will end it,” Kerry said.

As the mother of a child who not only faces the possibility of many more surgeries, not to mention hearing, nasal, speech and sleep issues, Kerry said her objective is to help her daughter any way she can. She may not be able to do much to alleviate the physical discomfort her daughter will endure, but she can help quell the emotional pain that comes from encountering frightened or close-minded people.

By helping others see Mary Cate as simply a child and not just a child with a condition, Kerry said everyone will benefit. Kerry said both she and Chris, a forensic accountant and a Marist graduate, strive to keep things lighthearted and easygoing.

“We want her to be able to break the ice about this, so we are showing her ways to do that,” she said.

When people say, “Oh, a healthy baby, 10 fingers, 10 toes,” they respond with, “Actually, no.”

“When kids say, ‘Mary Cate, give me a high-five,’ I’ll say, ‘Well, you have to give her change; she’ll give you a high-four,’ ” Kerry said. “We make a laugh out of it.”

To learn more about Mary Cate, visit
Kerry Lynch’s blog at mymarycate.org or her Facebook page, My Mary Cate.



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