Asking children to choose compassion

Dina Zuckerberg of myFace

The Enterprise — Michael Koff 
Sharing her story: Dina Zuckerberg of myFace, left, speaks to fifth-graders at Westmere Elementary School on Feb. 25. Zuckerberg told the students about the isolation she felt as a child with a craniofacial condition. At right is the organization’s community-relations manager, Vera Eastman. The women’s shirts feature the “F” from the myFace logo. 

GUILDERLAND — “It doesn’t matter how anybody looks, because everybody’s different and unique. It just matters how you treat them and how kind you are,” said Anju Kummetha, a fifth-grader at Westmere Elementary School this week.

Anju was describing what she learned during a visit to her school on Feb. 27 by Dina Zuckerberg of myFace, a not-for-profit organization that helps children with craniofacial conditions and their families.

Zuckerberg, 49, the organization’s director of family programs, told the fifth-graders that she was often teased as a child for her craniofacial deformities: she had a cleft lip, hearing loss in both ears, and vision only in one eye. “Kids would sometimes say mean things, and I would sit alone in the lunchroom and on the school bus, and those moments have stayed with me even today,” she said this week.

She also tells people that she remembers the times — “although they were far fewer” — when another child would say, “Can I play with you?” or “Can I sit with you?”

One important element of the organization’s work, Zuckerberg said, is to visit schools and talk to kids about “choosing kind” and being “an upstander rather than a bystander.” Since September, Zuckerberg said, “We’ve probably spoken at 40 schools.”

An upstander, Zuckerberg said, is someone who “sees something happening and chooses to do something to make it right.” It could mean taking a child out of a situation, telling a teacher what is happening, talking with someone who is playing alone, or simply saying hello and smiling, she said.

Zuckerberg said that her organization prefers to use the word “teasing,” rather than “bullying.” People think of “bullying” as a one-time aggressive act, she said, whereas just talking behind someone’s back or excluding someone can be as hurtful as more overt meanness.

During her visit to Westmere, Zuckerberg also discussed the book and movie “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio, which the students had all read together, as a read-aloud, and had taken a field trip in November to the movie theater at Crossgates Mall to watch.

“Wonder” is the story of Auggie Pullman, a fifth-grader dealing with craniofacial differences that come from having Treacher-Collins Syndrome, a disorder that, according to the myFace website, often means multiple anomalies such as absent cheekbones and ears, a diminutive jaw, near deafness, and the need for a tracheotomy. Auggie does not have a tracheotomy. “He had a more mild version of Treacher-Collins,” Zuckerberg said.

Auggie has been homeschooled as a child, but his parents have decided to send him to school in preparation for middle school. “Wonder” is the story of the difficulties he goes through during the year, as well as the way his strength of inner character eventually wins the respect and friendship of other children.

The organization myFace, which is based in New York City, was founded in 1951, said Zuckerberg. “It started helping people coming back from the war, people who had been injured in the face.

“It started out as the Society for the Facially Disfigured,” Zuckerberg continued, “and then became the national Foundation for Facial Reconstruction and started helping children — mostly children — who were born with craniofacial conditions or who acquired them through accidents or other means. A few years ago, we rebranded and became myFace.”

Vera Eastman, the organization’s community-relations manager, said that, in addition to education and outreach, the group funds the myFace Center at New York University Langone Health. The center, Eastman said, provides comprehensive care for patients with craniofacial conditions — medical, dental, surgical, and psychosocial services including speech therapy, nutrition, social work, support groups, and group activities.

About 70 percent of the families whose children receive treatment live at or below poverty level or do not have health insurance, the group’s website says, adding, “But no family is ever turned away.”

The not-for-profit myFace helps about 3,000 people a year and provided almost 6,000 procedures and consultations in the last fiscal year, according to Eastman.

“Everybody’s going through a lot, and you don’t know what they’re going through, so it’s better to be kind,” said fifth-grader Anju.

Anju talked about a letter that Zuckerberg showed the children. It was written by an student who had a craniofacial condition to the students who were about to be his classmates. He knew he was different, Anju said, but he hoped his classmates would treat him like anybody else.

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