Libertyville youth speaks as part of Choose Kind

Pete Dankelson has not had the easiest life. But you couldn’t tell by his upbeat demeanor during a talk the Libertyville High School junior gave to Monticello students Friday (Nov. 3). Born with serious birth defects that resulted in some craniofacial issues and 29 surgeries in his 17 years, he used insight and humor in his presentation entitled “Make Kindness Your Superhero.”

The assembly was part of the Choose Kind effort undertaken at Monticello schools this semester, activities that are based on the book “Wonder.” The popular youth book chronicles the struggles of August “Auggie” Pullman, a boy with facial differences who enters fifth grade, attending a mainstream elementary school for the first time. It is being released in movie form on Nov. 17.

Dankelson told students in Monticello “I am an Auggie,” and said he identifies with the book and its main character.

“It changed my life because it gave me a hero to look up to,” said Dankelson of the book authored by R.J. Palacio. “The best thing about ‘Wonder’ being popular is it has brought positive attention to those with facial differences.”

He pointed out movie characters with scars are generally the villains, and quipped that “it gives good guys like me a bad rap. It’s just not fair.

“I mean, come on. Do I look like a villain?” he added as his audience laughed.

But in his Choose Kind way, Dankelson gave some advice to students when they run across someone with facial differences.

On the “do” list is smiling and saying “hi,” and taking a second look and using positive words like “difference.” The “don’ts” include being afraid, staring and whispering and using negative words like “deformity.”

The high schooler said he speaks every few weeks at various venues, and told local students he loves to shred AC/DC and Guns and Roses licks on his electric guitar, is an avid Star Wars fan and adores his dogs Dexter and Abby.

“They don’t care what you look like. They love unconditionally and without judgement,” he said.

Pete’s mom Dede discussed some of the struggles her son faces, such as not being able to go underwater due to breathing limitations caused by the Goldenhar Syndrome he was born with. He also uses a breathing tube, has a bone-anchored hearing aid and a prosthetic ear.

The mother/son duo also led a sampling of students in an object lesson aimed at showing how hurtful words never go away, despite apologies.

Grouped in pairs, one participant crumpled a piece of paper, then smoothed it out the best they could. The other participant pretended they had done something hurtful and apologized.

But the paper still had wrinkles.

“Does the paper look the same? Will the paper every look the same again?” said Dede. “When we insult someone, or say unkind things, they get wrinkles inside just like those papers. And they never truly go away. We can apologize, but the apologies don’t take away the wrinkles, do they?”

In concluding his speech, Pete led students in a mantra he hopes can be part of their lives:

“Kindness is free. Kindness is contagious. Kindness is cool.”

Additional information on Dankelson is available at his website,

Monticello elementary and middle school students were all given a copy of “Wonder” or its picture book for younger ages entitled “We’re All Wonders,” thanks to local sponors. Students will also attend a showing of the movie Nov. 20-21 and keep the Choose Kind theme the entire school year.

White Heath Elementary Media Center Specialist Kristi Crook said the effort has already reaped benefits.

“Washington School has written their own precepts or words to live by and posted them all over their school. Their doors are decorated in the theme of Wonder. White Heath had a birthday party to celebrate Auggie’s birthday and has a third grade Wonder Club that does kind things for our school and community,” she said.

“Lincoln has bulletin boards decorated and the teachers are doing activities in classrooms to promote kindness. The high school painted rocks with Choose Kind messages and placed them around town for others to find. Kindness is contagious and we are excited that all of students and staff members from Small Wonders – high school seniors have been involved in the kindness movement.

“We’ve had other schools contact us to start similar programs in their schools. We have had amazing support from our local businesses and continue to have sponsors contacting us to ask how they can do more,” added Crook.


Categories (3):News, Education, People


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