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All different, all the same

Alumna's book helps children better understand illness

by Barbara Blum

Being different, but fitting in. Unique, but just like everyone else. Common challenges of the young. One woman saw children struggling with acceptance. She saw kids with “differences” wanting “sameness.” Then she saw something she could do to help.

UC alumna Sarah Curry Rathel, A&S ’05, saw a need for a children’s book that addresses physical changes that an illness can bring – loss of hair, scars, wheelchairs or trachea tubes. Since graduating from UC, most of her work has been in nonprofit children’s advocacy. Through her positions with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House, Rathel saw kids struggle with how to relate to another child who looked “different.”

“They lose their hair from chemo, they have scars on their necks from getting their airways reconstructed,” Rathel explains. “They may have scars all the way down the chest from cardiology, or they're on steroids.

“Kids are honest. Kids just don't understand that these other kids have these illnesses. They’ll ask, 'Why are you yellow?' They don't understand it's because their liver isn't functioning,” she says.

When she couldn’t find a book that promotes acceptance no matter what you look like, Rathel simply wrote it -- found a Cincinnati-based printer and got the ball rolling.

Rathel filled the literary void with “There’s Something Different About My Hair,” published in August 2013 and the first in what she hopes will be a series of “Something Different” books.

The book illustrates that everyone’s hair is different – long, short, curly, straight or a rainbow of colors. Front and center of the book’s cover is a drawing of a girl with no hair, just a red bow on top of her head. “When I was born I grew lots of hair, but I got sick and now it’s not there,” the narrator explains. The book ends with, “From color to length, rowdy or tame, we all have different hair and that makes us the same.”

Ironically, the author spent her youth wanting to look different. Rathel is a twin and, while growing up, wanted to stand apart from her identical sister. “When you are a twin, you are constantly compared,” says. “People are constantly looking to pick apart differences. They want you to be the same.”

There’s nothing ordinary or “same” about Rathel. An extremely driven UC communications student, she worked four jobs and still graduated with high honors, magna cum laude. Rathel appreciated the classes and professors even more, she says, because she worked so hard to get her degree. “I was going to suck the life out of every class I took,” Rathel says. “I think I got an A in every class in the communication department except for one A minus.”

In her last years at UC, Rathel added to her workload with an unpaid internship with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. That internship led to a full-time paid position upon her graduation, where she became a wish program manager or “wish grantor.”

She remembers organizing an outing for a young girl who wanted to meet some popular teen heartthrobs, the Jonas Brothers, when they appeared at Riverbend in Cincinnati. “There were girls everywhere,” Rathel notes. “Every tween girl in the local Tristate area was there.” Her group was escorted through the screaming fans back to the tour bus, “hung out with them for a little bit” and then watched the concert.

“I did 'Disney' wishes. I did 'Hawaii' wishes. I did 'NASCAR' wishes,” she said, and would also handle any arrangements for wishes that involved Cincinnati venues or sports celebrities. Other wishes included shopping sprees, room makeovers, computers or ATVs.

During that time, Rathel married husband Jason in 2006, and daughter Sienna Lee was born the following year. She continued working at Make-A-Wish until Rathel discovered she was pregnant. She took a couple of years off work after son Marshall Wesley was born.

When she wanted to re-enter the workforce, Rathel saw a position at the Ronald McDonald House of Cincinnati would include flexible time and weekends “which would be perfect for me.”

The local House has expanded in its 30-plus years in Cincinnati and now cares for 78 guest families every night, providing them with a “home away from home” while their children receive medical treatment. Adjacent to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the facility is warm and inviting, with plenty of space for all kinds of activities. Rathel is now a “guest services assistant” at the Ronald McDonald House, acting somewhat like a concierge handling any number of requests.

It wasn’t just what she saw in her work life that prompted Rathel to write the book. At home, she recognized “differences” in her young children. Both her son and daughter have been diagnosed with “receptive and expressive language delays,” meaning they did not talk or create full sentences at the “normal” age a child would. When neighbor kids would come to play with the Rathel kids, the youngsters didn’t understand how to play with her children.

"They would wonder, ‘Why is she not playing with me?’ They didn't understand. And they were not being mean at all,” Rathel points out. It was the other kids’ responses to her own children that sparked the book idea. “I thought, 'There's nothing like this.' One day, [the ideas] just literally popped into my head.”

She wrote five or six stories, but didn’t know what the next step would be. “I had a discussion with Cincinnati Book Publishing when I first wrote all of the books. I didn't know where to begin, and they offered me advice and suggestions that were very helpful,” Rathel says. When she was ready to proceed, Cincinnati Book Publishing helped her find illustrator Bob Kelly.

“There’s Something Different About My Hair” is available through the publisher, through Rathel’s website, somethingdifferentbooks.com, and through Amazon.com. A percentage of the book’s proceeds benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati.