Midlothian mom prayed for kindness, inclusion for special needs son starting kindergarten

By Patty Hullett
For the Mirror

Almost everyone has worry and anxiety about starting a brand new school year. But nothing is quite like the heart-melting experience than mothers watching their babies go through those huge school doors and begin classes on the first day of kindergarten.

Add in the scenario of having a special needs boy, who was born with a rare disease called Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS), and one can only imagine the fears Brittany Denison of Midlothian faced Monday, Aug. 16, when her son, Michael Murphey, 5, was ready to start his school days in kindergarten at Mountain Peak Elementary.

As defined online, TCS "is a genetic disorder, which affects the development of facial bones and tissues. The degree of deformity varies from mild to severe. The disease is so rare that it generally affects fewer than 20,000 cases per year in the United States. Treatments can help manage the condition, but there is no known cure." Certain types of TCS can be dangerous or life-threatening if untreated, and family history may increase the likelihood of the disease.

Denison shares, “In reality, because the bones in the face are smaller, an individual with TCS may have difficulty with eating, breathing, hearing, and speech. More severe cases of Treacher Collins Syndrome require the use of a tracheotomy, feeding tube, and bone conduction hearing aids.”

A mother’s prayer and heartfelt plea

“Dear God: Please make them (the kids) be nice to him.” — From “Wonder” (2017)

Brittany Denison made a plea about her son on her Facebook page (dated Aug. 6):

"Hi, Friends:

The first day of school is right around the corner and I wanted to make this post to help parents educate their children. This year Michael, my son, will start Kindergarten. I am so excited, yet so scared. As he gets older he is starting to realize that he is different. He is also becoming more affected by the whispers and stares. Michael was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, exactly like the boy Auggie in the 2017 movie “Wonder”. My boy looks very different, but he is mentally the exact same as all the other children.

I have a HUGE ask of all parents of school aged children!

Would you please take a moment to talk to your children before school starts next week?

Talk to them about using words like “different and unique” instead of “weird and scary”. Talk to them not only about being friendly and kind, but also about being a friend. Please don’t tell them not to stare! Instead, let them know that if they are going to stare, it’s polite to also say “Hi”. Teach them to stand up for the kid in the room who is being picked on, and to sit with the kid who is being excluded.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: Model acceptance and kindness in the way you speak to other adults. This includes the cashier, the drive-thru employee, and the guy who didn’t use his turn signal! If you (or your child) take a step out of your comfort zone to talk to someone who you think is different, you may find out that you have more in common than you think!”

Superheroes to the rescue

Andrew Gatlin of the Midlothian Fire Department saw Denison's post on Facebook, and he made sure the incoming kindergartner had an amazing first day of school.

He phoned Michael’s mom, introduced himself, and told Denison about the idea of taking Michael to school on the fire truck.

Michael Murphey is surprised by Midlothian police and firemen as they arrive at the boys' home to escort him on his first day of kindergarten on a fire truck, with police cars leading the way.

Denison says, “I had just gotten off the phone with Michael’s kindergarten teacher Mrs. Pearson (who is perfect for Michael), where I explained to her that I wanted him to be treated like every other child in her classroom. Clearly, this was not what God had in mind!”

Denison interjects another quote from the movie “Wonder”, which comes to her mind: “You can’t blend in when you were born to stand out."

Michael stands with two of his "superhero" friends, Captain America and Batman.

The "superheroes" (police Officer Chris Douglas as Captain America and police Officer Shawn Hughes as Batman) were an extra surprise that came to fruition through the week. Denison says, “The first responders in this town are some incredible individuals that are clearly pouring their hearts into making this community a special place to live on a daily basis.” According to media reports, young Michael wore a superhero T-shirt with Batman headband and Batman backpack while escorted by the Midlothian fire truck and a couple Midlothian police vehicles. When the crew pulled up to Mountain Peak Elementary in Midlothian, his entire kindergarten class was there curbside to greet him. 

Fireman Gatlin told NBC DFW, "You don't know what everyone's going through. So if you see somebody struggling, or if you see an opportunity to step in and be that hero for somebody, do it. You never know whose life you're gonna touch or change."

Principal Adam Henke added, "He's part of the family now. I think that's huge to know you are different than me, and I want to recognize and understand what that is, and I hope our school gets that from this experience."

Outpouring of love from around the world

Denison shares, “My initial Facebook post has been shared from my personal page over 1,000 times, each of the news stories have thousands of views, and People Magazine’s Instagram has 9 million followers – where Michael has been mentioned. I really don’t know how many people this message has reached. All I can say is that people from all over the globe have sent me encouraging messages on Facebook. My simple post and plea has made a worldwide impact in a matter of a few days, and it is completely astonishing.” 

Michael has received tons of fan mail, a video from Canadian police officers, and lots of other interviews and offers of well wishes and support from groups, individuals and businesses.

Some of the most recent highlights include: 

* On Aug. 18, 3-time Guinness World Record Holder Ron Shover and “Balloon Insanity” visited the entire Denison family and brought tremendous joy to Michael and his other siblings.

Michael is visited at home by balloon artist Ron Shover. From left is Shover, Michael, sister Allison Murphey and mom Brittany Denison.

* On Aug. 21, Michael was invited to go hunting with “Texas Hunt for the Cure” in Italy, Texas.

* “Bikers Against Bullying of East Texas” organized a “I Choose Kind Ride” from Gladewater to Midlothian on Aug. 22, ending at the Snow Cone Heritage House in Midlothian at noon, where Michael was on hand to meet new friends and to thank the bikers for their support.

* Michael has been offered a plane ride in the future by “Airplanes and Coffee” from Cleburne Regional Airport.

 * A few authors that have books out about “kindness and inclusion” have sent Michael copies of their books for him to enjoy.

* Several of Santa’s helpers have volunteered their services to make sure that Michael has a fantastic holiday season ahead of him.

The world according to Michael

When asked how school was going after the first couple of weeks, Michael says in typical kid fashion, “Everything is good, I have a lot of new friends, and the best thing is recess!” He also mentioned everyone being so nice to him, as well as three of his favorite new friends, Jaiden, Kollins, and Olivia. Michael lists three of his favorite things in life as: Sonic the Hedgehog, Captain America, and Minecraft. He loves baseball, likes to ride his bike, and admits that running is fun. In fact, he wants to be an official “runner” when he grows up.

Michael in his kindergarten class at Mountain Peak Elementary.

Denison says there is never a dull moment in their busy house of “yours, mine, and ours” clan. Brittany is married to Patrick Denison, and collectively they have five children between them. Michael has a stepsister Stella Denison, 10; a stepbrother Cullen Denison, 9; sister Allison Murphey, 7; and his baby sister Juliette Denison, 1.

“I had a small tug on my heart to make my original August 6th Facebook post, that I can only explain as a God moment. Michael and I used to speak in schools advocating for kindness, but COVID has halted that temporarily. I never anticipated that we would be able to reach people across the globe with a simple post. It brings my heart so much joy to read comments like, ‘I’ve talked to my children’ or ‘We had the conversation’. My small plea will undoubtedly be beneficial to so many children who are unique in their own ways. ... When you see a person help someone else, it reignites a tiny flame in your heart, a flame that warms your spirit and urges you to use your own God-given talents to brighten someone else’s day.

"I sit here all day wondering how I can be a light in a world that has become so polarized and negative. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way, but these wonderful acts of kindness and inclusion for Michael have renewed my faith in people all around us – near or far – and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts."