Essex teen overcomes her body's limitations

Success: Erin Williams is stepping into the spotlight despite a rare genetic disorder.

March 12, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Erin Williams was born without external ears, cheekbones and eye sockets, and with very little lower jaw. At 17, she has endured 44 operations.

For her physical struggles and her friendship with Cher, who played the mother of a boy with similar facial deformities in the movie Mask, the Essex girl found her way into newspapers and People magazine, and on to a daytime talk show.

Now, however, Erin is stepping into the spotlight on her own, not because of her rare genetic disorder but in spite of it.

She is on track to graduate seventh in her class of 200 this spring at Chesapeake High School. She is also the Baltimore County Commission for Women's Young Woman of the Year.

And this weekend, she will direct a school play. The show: The Miracle Worker.

The play tells the story of Helen Keller, who defied every expectation and learned to communicate though blind and deaf, and Annie Sullivan, the teacher who got through to her.

The parallels between Keller's life and Erin's are more than a few.

"She had to go through overcoming a lot of adversity," said Erin, a slim 5 feet 2 inches with long brown hair. "She went from having no point of being in the world to being so intelligent, so bright, and I think being supported by my family and my friends has helped me overcome a lot of adversity. ... Having her family support her going through very hard times, it's kind of similar to my life."

When Erin was four months old, she went into full respiratory and cardiac arrest at home. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital thought she'd never recover neurologically. She did.

From then on, whenever that doctor saw her, he would say, "this kid's a miracle," according to Erin's mother, Connie Williams.

Erin attended Baltimore County's programs for hearing-impaired students at Villa Cresta Elementary and Pine Grove Middle schools. But her parents and teachers began to feel she was being held back.

Rather than continuing with the hearing-impaired class at Parkville High School, Erin enrolled at her neighborhood high school, Chesapeake. She was accompanied by an interpreter for the first half of her freshman year, but that was holding her back, too, she decided. She's been on her own, in honors classes, ever since.

Erin uses a tracheotomy to help her breathe, and she cannot hear much without a hearing aid. She grew up wearing hearing aids on a headband, reading lips and using sign language. In middle school, she had hearing aids implanted to the bones behind her surgeon-made outer ears.

One of the friends supporting Erin through dozens of hospital visits has been Cher, who began advocacy work on behalf of children with facial deformities after filming Mask. When Erin had her surgery to get outer ears, Cher sent diamond earrings.

"I'm really proud of her because I've seen what she has had to go through and how strong it's made her," Cher said in a telephone interview yesterday. "She's got unbelievable guts."

Erin has long used the stage to help her overcome insecurity. She has taken dance lessons - jazz, tap, ballet and pointe - since age 3.

In high school, she took up acting. Being in school and local plays helped Erin become more social after her sister, Kelly, left for American University three years ago, Connie Williams said.

When Emily Morgan and Mallory Laffoon met Erin at the beginning of high school, "she barely spoke," said Emily, who plays Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Now Erin is constant chatter, said Mallory, who plays Annie Sullivan. "She kept me up until 3 in the morning the other night talking."

With the help of another friend, Kim Volz, her assistant director, Erin has led rehearsals from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night this week.

At a banquet Monday night, Erin will get her Young Woman of the Year award.

Upon her graduation from Chesapeake, she plans to study nursing, specializing in pediatrics. She's been accepted at Villa Julie College and Towson University.

Erin began her Villa Julie essay with a quote from Helen Keller: "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."

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