There’s a little girl who lives in Tallmadge who could teach us all a lesson or two. She is so caring that a teacher’s assistant at Munroe Elementary School maintains she has never seen such a level of compassion in a child. And there’s a boy who is the girl’s inspiration.
Rachel Prior and Ethan Fairhurst are best buddies. As good friends often do, Rachel has asked every year since second grade to be placed in Ethan’s classroom. It wasn’t until this year, in fifth grade, that the pair was split up, to Rachel’s chagrin. Parents and teachers thought the separation would do both kids good.
What makes this friendship special is that Ethan, 12, who is nonverbal and fully dependent on others, has autism and cerebral palsy. Rachel, more mature than her 11 years, does not — and she’s proving to others that someone’s disability is not what defines them.
“Cerebral palsy doesn’t make people much different from you, so be nice, don’t make fun,” she wrote in a school report when she was 10.
Rachel, who has three younger brothers, and Ethan, who has two brothers, became friends while sitting on the sidelines at their siblings’ baseball and soccer games. It was easy for Rachel to like the boy with the contagious grin.
She says she’s always known that he had some problems, “but it doesn’t really matter,” she offered. “We are all different in our own way.”
Leave it to the kids
There’s a group of adults who participate as Team Ethan in the popular Akron Marathon, to be held on Saturday. The 44 runners on the team will raise money for United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland. Last year, Rachel pushed her buddy’s wheelchair in the marathon’s Kids Fun Run. But she and a couple of neighbors, brother and sister Ethan and Isabel Chaplin, wanted to do more.
Using a GPS app on her dad’s cellphone, Rachel and her pals mapped out a 1-mile course around their Tallmadge neighborhood.
They made racing bibs and passed out fliers announcing the “Elm [Street] Trail Race” to benefit United Cerebral Palsy. Rachel coordinated efforts to make sure there would be a registration table to collect race fees. And they approached local businesses asking for small donations for the winners. Twenty-seven racers received a token to remind them of their contribution.
As luck would have it, Tallmadge High School cross country coach Jeremy Huth just happened by when the race was in progress. Spotting a couple of his runners, Huth pulled his car over to ask them what was taking place. Thanks to that chance encounter, this year’s Elm Trail Race, set for next Sunday, will be held at Tallmadge High School.
The neighborhood race and Rachel’s compassion for others were the subject of an essay written by Ethan Fairhurst’s mother, Sarah, and submitted to the Kohl’s Cares for Kids program, which recognizes and rewards young people who transform their communities through volunteerism.
Rachel was selected as the Brimfield Kohl’s store winner.
“The highlight of the race for this mom was seeing Ethan cross the finish line with the help of his friends,” Fairhurst wrote in the essay.
Children don’t miss much, and because of the relationship Rachel and Ethan have, school staff think they are teaching their peers valuable, lifelong lessons.
Ethan’s teacher, Carrie Williams, said students are finding out that what makes up a person goes beyond what they look like, or what they may or may not be able to do.
Williams’ assistant, Connie Bowers, added that Rachel genuinely wants people to feel good about themselves. She has witnessed the girl going out of her way to make that happen.
“She will see a child sitting by themselves and she will go over and sit with them. I don’t think she realizes what she gives that child. Because a lot of kids, special ed or not, don’t know how to have friendships. She makes them feel important — to feel wanted.”
The adage “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” applies here.
“I think you learn compassion from your family,” Bowers added. And that’s the case with Kelly and Scott Prior and Sarah and Matt Fairhurst.
“I love that Rachel is compassionate to Ethan. She never shies away from hanging out with him or pushing him on the swing on the playground,” Kelly said. “But I see that he’s giving her as much as she’s giving him. She’s learning what it means to be a caregiver and to be a friend. And a friend that doesn’t expect anything back.
“My children … have a great experience with Ethan that they wouldn’t have any other way.”
And then looking at Sarah, who was sitting nearby, Kelly repeated what she has told her many times before.
“Your son gives them more than they could ever give him.”
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.