A special class, a special girl

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This is the story of Cameron “Cammy” Babiarz, a 6-year-old Wheaton girl with Rett Syndrome.

It’s about Emma Dennewitz, a fifth-grader from the Northwest Side, who became Cammy’s hero.

And it’s about Michelle Reynolds, the teacher who taught Emma how.

Reynolds, 36, began teaching at Oriole Park Elementary School 15 years ago.

Cammy’s Mom Jackie Babiarz, Cammy and Oriole Park School 5th-grade teacher Michelle Reynolds | (Maudlyne Ihejirika)

Cammy’s Mom Jackie Babiarz, Cammy and Oriole Park School 5th-grade teacher Michelle Reynolds | (Maudlyne Ihejirika)

“I tell the kids this is where they’ll find me when they graduate college, get married and have their babies,” she said.

But when she started her own family, seven years ago, she faced a mother’s heartbreak — a child born disabled.

“Owen is globally and cognitively delayed,” the doting mother said of her son.

When Owen was five, Reynolds began noticing that other children didn’t know how to interact with her son. They didn’t seem to know what to say to him. A light bulb went off in her head. She researched, then designed a curriculum she called “Choose Kind.”

It exposes students to children with disabilities via books, poetry, music and art.

“I begin with a PowerPoint presentation on my own son, to give the kids a face to other kids in the world,” she said. “We talk about the difference saying ‘Hi’ can make, especially to a child with special needs.

“We educate ourselves on a variety of disabilities, so that kids are not walking away with stereotypes, but rather, information they can use to relate to any child in the world, and speak with intelligence, compassion and understanding.”

Oriole Park Principal Tim Riff said it profoundly affected students.

“Michelle’s an invaluable asset to our school,” he said. “I’m speechless, absolutely blown away, by what she has inspired — a girl from this neighborhood wanting to help a girl far away, and hundreds of kids getting behind the effort and doing a fantastic job.”

Emma was moved by the “Choose Kind” curriculum, her mother said. Even before Reynolds’ class, she and her siblings had learned about Cammy, the disabled child of a childhood friend of their mother’s.

Oriole Park School 5th-grader Emma Dennewitz, with her parents | (Maudlyne Ihejirika)

Oriole Park School 5th-grader Emma Dennewitz, with her parents | (Maudlyne Ihejirika)

“Cammy’s mom and I reconnected on Facebook, and I learned of Cammy’s disability,” Sue Dennewitz said. “I started following her blog. My kids and I began watching Cammy’s videos on YouTube.

“In Emma’s class, Ms. Reynolds was drumming home the quote, ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’”

Emma came up with the idea to raise money for Cammy.With her teacher, she made a presentation about Cammy. With her parents, she made’Cammy Can’ collection boxes. She hung pictures.

“Soon the whole school wanted to help,” said Emma.

“We reached our goal of $500 by the third week. My classmate Nick was the first one to donate $100 from his birthday money, saying ‘Cammy needs this more than me.’ Then we got an anonymous $100 donation from a sixth-grader, then $100 from two seventh-graders.”

By the time Cammy and her mom visited the school earlier this month, the donations totaled $2,500.

“We’re raising kids who will change the world,” Reynolds beamed.

Retts, a neurodevelopmental disorder, affects 1 in 10,000 girls.

“Everything was normal the first six months,” said Cammy’s mom, Jackie Babiarz. “At 12 months, doctors became concerned. They kept telling me

Six-year-old “Cammy” Babiarz has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder | (Maudlyne Ihejirika)

Six-year-old “Cammy” Babiarz has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder | (Maudlyne Ihejirika)

it was developmental delay. I kept saying, ‘No, something is off.’”

At 20 months Cammy finally saw a specialist who recognized Retts.

“The day we found out, we cried, but only allowed ourselves to grieve for a day,” said her mother. “Then we said, ‘OK, what do we do?’ The only thing we could do — fund raise to push research, and do everything we can to give Cammy the best life possible.”

The Babiarzes have donated $300,000 to the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, through a “Cammy Can” fundraiser held each March, and contributions from friends and family.

“We’re not stopping,” her mom said. “And each year, we create a bucket list for Cammy.”

Cammy loves the Chicago Blackhawks. When the team won the Stanley Cup in 2013, she wanted to touch it. And she got to, during CEO John McDonough’s day with the cup. This year, when the team launched its #WhatsYourGoal social media campaign, Cammy sent in hers: To meet her favorite player,Duncan Keith.

“We got a call from the Blackhawks,” her mom said. “She just lit up when she met Duncan. She said, ‘I lost my teeth. How many have you lost?’ He laughed.”

Posted by the Blackhawks, the video garnered over 7 million views.

But even for a mother that has made a habit of creating amazing experiences for her daughter, Jackie Babiarz was stunned at the generosity of Emma and her classmates.

“I thought it was going to be jars full of coins,” she saidwhen Cammy visited Oriole Park.”Oh my God!”

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