The Halo Club

Kathryn Benton, a 12-year-old afflicted with Angelman syndrome, cannot talk. But the special friendship she has with Emily Faber, a gifted fourth-grader from McKinney, speaks volumes.

One day Kathryn's mother was having a hard time getting Kathryn to leave Mrs. Davie's class during recess. (Kathryn is picked up early so her mother can get back to Van Alstyne in time to pick up her two younger sons from school.) Emily devised a plan.

As Paula Benton walked onto the playground, Emily whispered in Kathryn's ear that maybe her mother would take her to McDonald's on the way home. Kathryn excitedly hurried into her mother's car. As her mother drove north on I-75, Kathryn became almost apoplectic when her mother approached a McDonald's. She pointed and screeched until her mother stopped. Paula figured out that was what Emily had whispered in her ear.

At first, Emily's mother, Debbie Faber, was concerned about her daughter's infatuation with her new friend. She thought Emily might be taking on too much emotionally. She was afraid it might alienate other children.

Emily admits some friends were angry that she was "hogging" Kathryn. Others felt uncomfortable around Kathryn. And some were jealous that Kathryn responded so well to Emily. When the teacher explained some of the children's feelings, Emily assuaged the situation by trying to explain the dynamics of her relationship to her classmates.

"Sometimes the buddy helpers make her do things she doesn't want to do," Emily says. "If they didn't pull her and just asked her, she would get up and do it. She has her own personality."

When Emily is asked why she likes Kathryn so much, she thinks for a moment.
"I like Kathryn because she likes me," she says. "I can tell she likes me best out of everyone in the class. She gives me hugs all the time. I'm the only one in the class who wipes her face. Everyone else gets grossed out. In my old school, we had a lot of handicapped kids, but you never saw them. They were always in their room.

"I think that we became friends because Kathryn understands so much about me and everyone else. She makes it fun. She makes everyone happy."

Emily has her own handicap," her mother says, only half-jokingly. Emily is always coming up with ideas and plans that inevitably make more work for her mother. In fact, Emily had gotten everyone in her family involved in Special Olympics. They all attended the events held during weekends, and volunteered as huggers: They hug all the participants as they cross the finish line.

"She's the type of kid who will say, 'Hey, why don't you bring your dog over, and we'll go trick-or-treating,' and before you know it, Emily's roped me into making a costume for the dog," Debbie Faber says.

So it was hardly a surprise that Emily began planning her birthday party during Christmas, though her birthday was almost two months away. She announced to her mother she wanted Kathryn to be there. Debbie wasn't sure Paula Benton would let her come, but Emily was insistent. When her mother suggested they do a Disneyland Olympics theme, Emily overruled her, fearing Kathryn wouldn't be able to participate.

When the invitations went out, Debbie called Paula, whom she had met briefly at a school choral program earlier in the year. "I told her I was a responsible parent and could Kathryn please come to the party," Debbie recalls. "Emily also wanted Kathryn to stay two hours later so they could get to play."

Debbie stopped by Kathryn's classroom one day before the party to talk with special-education teacher Holly Clemons. Debbie wanted to make sure the party had been planned with Kathryn's best interests in mind. As soon as Kathryn saw Emily's mother, she ran over to the "Happy Birthday" sign on a class bulletin board. Then she packed up her book bag and stood up.

"I think she thought she was going to the party right then and there," Debbie recalls. "She is so smart. She understands everything."

Thirteen girls came to Emily's "blooming birthday party." With chocolate cake and Oreo cookies, Debbie made a cake resembling a pile of dirt, with gummy worms and plastic daisies sprouting from the top. She filled pots with chocolate-covered raisins and had gummy worms climbing out of the pots. The dining-room table was covered with split peas painted red with black dots to resemble lady bugs.

For fun and games, Emily's father, Chris, blew up balloons and tied them to the girls' ankles. They were to burst each other's balloons. Kathryn liked just busting them in her hands. She managed to fit herself in anyway she could.

For much of the party, the girls played a game Kathryn had devised. She apparently had never seen an electronic garage door before, and she spent a lot of time just mesmerized as she made it go up and down while trying to roll a ball up the driveway and into the garage before the door closed.

"She was laughing so hard and having such a good time," Emily says. "That was my best birthday party ever."

The birthday present Kathryn gave Emily is a silver bracelet with the inscription, "Special friend." Emily wears it every day, and each night she slips it off and places it back into its velvet case--the only possession, Emily's mother insists, Emily takes such good care of.

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