The only thing sparkling more than the tiara on Makayla Torres’ head, or the pearl necklace around her neck, was her smile as she spun around on the dance floor at her 16th birthday party Saturday.
The Rock Hill teenager’s personality shines just as bright as her smile. Friends and family members who helped Torres celebrate her birthday with a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” themed party Saturday said they didn’t see a girl in a wheelchair who can’t walk or talk. They saw a bubbly 16-year-old who loves movies, Walt Disney World and Clay Aiken.
Torres’ mother, Heather Earl, said her daughter was about 8 months old when she realized something wasn’t right.
“She’s had so many tests done,” Earl said. “It’s like textbook (cerebral palsy). She’s never been diagnosed with that. She doesn’t have brain damage. She continues to thrive and have gains. She’s never regressed. She’s an enigma.”
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Doctors have not given them a definitive answer, Earl said. Torres cannot walk and is very limited in her communication, but shows “incredible” comprehension.
Earl watched her daughter giggle as friends spun her around in her wheelchair on the dance floor to “Walking on Sunshine.” It’s not rare, she said, for families of special needs children to have no answer as to a cause.
“You just have things the doctors say, ‘We don’t know,’ and some people are happy to leave it at that,” she said. “We keep digging, because we want to give her the best quality of life as long as we possibly can. If there’s anything that we can do for her – we won’t stop.”
Torres’ birthday, which is July 31, has always been a big deal.
Her family pulled all the stops for Saturday’s celebration, based on the 1961 Audrey Hepburn film. The ballroom of the Hilton Garden Inn sparkled with jewels, pearls, sunglasses and balloon sculptures. The cake was shaped like the iconic Tiffany & Co. box, complete with a white bow and “Makayla & Co.” inscribed in icing. There was a New York City skyline backdrop for pictures, and the famous “Tiffany Blue” color was used in all the decorations, party favors and food.
Torres wore aHepburn-inspired black gown, twinkling tiara and had a beehive hair-do. A photo of Torres recreating a scene from the movie and a sign, “Welcome, darlings,” greeted guests.
Earl said it took about a year to plan Saturday’s party. They’ve also had had elaborate parties in the past, including a sock hop at a bowling alley.
Amber Crow, a longtime friend of Earl’s, said “She won’t eat all day because she’s so excited. She is birthday parties and Walt Disney World.”
Crow said Torres’ constant happiness is energizing and inspirational.
“I may have had a hard day at work,” she said. “But I come over and – going through everything that she has to normally go through on a daily basis – she still has a smile on her face. I tell you what, if that does not put you back in your place, nothing will. She’s happy for no reason at all, because she’s awake and alert.”
Shirley Smith said she’s fallen in love with Torres after living next door to her family for a year.
“You look at her and her little eyes, and you just see a pure heart,” she said. “She’s made me realize just how good my life has been. She’s always happy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in a bad mood.”
Eileen Clark, a former teacher of Torres’, called her “pure magic.”
“Unashamed happiness, unashamed love,” she said. “If she loves somebody, she lets you know without a doubt.”
Earl said she doesn’t want people to be afraid to approach a child with special needs or to talk with their parents. She says it’s important to make special-needs children feel included, and that starts with getting rid of labels.
“I don’t label her as handicapped. I label her as handicapable,” she said. “Or, you can call her Makayla. I don’t want people to be scared or be afraid to speak with a child with special needs. They want to be loved and understood just like everyone else. Just treat them with respect like you would want to be treated. Include them – don’t ever leave them out, because if you don’t think they can understand, we don’t know, so treat them as though they understand.”