From The Toronto Star
Saturday, December 23, 2000, - www.thestar.com
BY HEATHER ROYCE-ROLL - LIFE WRITTER
Michael Wllliams-Stark has been a rock musician,
a Second City comedian and the voice for about 50 cartoon characters.
But what he really wants is to be the full-time facilitator of making faces, a series of improv acting classes for children with facial
For eight weeks, groups of about 10 children meet
once a week to play games, learn to speak up and look others in
the eye. The goal is to boost self-esteem so these children will
grow up to be active members of the community, not shut-ins.
"We've recently been focusing on 9 to 13-year-olds
- when kids are making their way into the world," says Williams-Stark.
However, he adds the program has worked with all age groups, from
preschoolers to young adults.
It is administered by AboutFace, an information
and support network for people with facial differences, and their
Williams-Stark himself remembers being a child
and having the worst bi- lateral cleft lip and palate case in B.C:-
As a 6-year-old, before leaving the house, he'd stand before the
mirror and psych himself up for the teasing and stares.
'"I knew at a very early age people could
be monstrous. I was very world-weary and tired, "he says.
Today, his volunteer work with Making-Faces makes
up for the pain in his past. "Man, I'd never trade it (the
facial difference) now. It feels so good to work at a job where
the results are immediate and so profound. The buzz of music and
acting is nothing like this.”
Williams-Stark came up with the idea for making faces after his partner Abby Thomas suggested he join AboutFace
eight years ago. With social worker Heather Beverage and AboutFace
executive director Anna Pileggi, he's been helping children for
"I’ve never had a kid not respond,”
he says matter-of-factly. One mother whose daughter participated
in the workshops wrote on the program evaluation: "God bless
you all! She talks at home now!"
Beverage says the kids feel a sense of accomplishment
about acting. "It increases participation in other activities.
We see children come in very shy, who don't volunteer and are very
uncomfortable working in pairs. After eight weeks, they will volunteer
to be a part of activities and work in a group."
After completing the workshops, some children
begin to answer questions in class for the first time or become
more social with schoolmates Maybe it's because I've been told they've
conquered the Number 1 fear of people everywhere: public speaking.
Maybe it's because of the homework assignments; Make eye contact
and make big noises.
"If you can't change what makes you unattractive
by Hollywood standards, how do you fit in?"' asks Pileggi,
"Very often, the kids want to be invisible."
So Williams-Stark works with them on body language.
By carrying themselves with pride, they took less like targets.
"The very act of going into the world with a facial difference
is an act of courage.” he says.
Organizers hope to raise $100,000 to travel to
About Face chapters across North America. After that, they'd like
to create a video and workbook for kids who can't make it to the
The problem, however, is funding. AboutFace is
non-profit and relies on foundation grants, individual donations,
corporate sponsorship and special event fundraising.
With one part-time and three fulltime staff members
in Toronto, and more than 2,000 volunteers in North America, AboutFace
also runs a school support program, and assists parents with newborns,
as well as teenagers and adults who need role models.
One such role model is Paul Stanley from the rock
band KISS. Stanley was born with microtia, a deformity of the ear,
and had surgery five times when he was in his 3Os.
During one AboutFace event, Stanley told a group
of children without facial differences to imagine their aunt sent
them the coolest shirt. Pretend, he said, that they wore it out-side
before noticing that people were staring and snickering. The shirt
they thought was so fine was not considered cool at all. While they
could take off their shirts at home, kids with facial differences,
he told them, couldn't take off their faces,
This is one of the ways AboutFace tries to break
down barriers between those affected by facial differences and their
peers. Another is to go into schools showing kids geodes. They aren't
impressed by these dirty, plain rocks until the geodes are cracked
open to reveal their sparkling crystal insides. AboutFace hopes
the kids will learn to search within people, too.
Discrimination based on looks is,” the same
as racism, homophobia or sexism. You're cheating yourself out of
friends,” Williams-Stark points out.
Parents are also offered support and taught to
take an active role with the team of health care professionals their
child might have to see, such as craniofacial surgeons, dentists,
neuroradiologists and social workers.
Pileggi says many adults with facial differences
live in rooming houses on social benefits, avoiding contact with
the world. But she says the making faces grads are more likely to
grow up to have careers and families of their own,
"I want to train others to be facilitators,"
says Williams-Stark, "but I think they should be people who
have facial differences themselves.”
After having surgery .he says he can "pass"
as someone without a facial difference. "I just look like I
got beat up,” he jokes. But he brings a photo of himself from
Grade 2 to show the children he understands what they are going
Some people have tried to make him sound like
a hero or a saint, but he describes himself simply as a guy who
likes “the blues, beer and staying up all night."
Right now, he hopes to "get more on-air
gigs so the kids will be inspired. If a guy with a cleft lip and
palate can do cartoon voices, they can do anything!"
making faces can be reached through
their website at www.makingfaces