In a classroom at the Zoo Sprouts Day Care Center in Manhattan, Kansas, Mallory Morris, a 24-year-old teacher's aide, sits on the floor, reading "Little Mist" to her preschoolers:
He pounced and shook his frosty fur.
"I like my world!" he laughed.
"There is more," said Little Mist's mother.
"The world stretches far and wide."
"More?" said Little Mist.
His mother rolled over and licked his eager face.
"Come, little one, come and see."
Some of them sit opposite her, rapt in attention, while others lean their backs against her, and another drapes himself over her shoulder. Mallory clearly isn't bothered, and they just as clearly adore her. The scene is as sweet as the irony of reading a book about a snow leopard cub in a child care center at Manhattan's Sunset Zoo.
And to think ...
Mallory is just a few weeks away from leaving the "Little Apple" on a journey that will take her halfway across the world to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where she will compete in the 100 meters, 400 meters and 4x100 relay at the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi (March 14-21), a global competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities. "The kids aren't old enough to realize how cool it is to have an elite athlete reading to them, or leading them in their exercises, or cheering them up," says Jared Bixby, the director of the preschool. "They just love Mallory for who she is."
Dubai is about 7,700 miles away, but that's nothing compared to the distance Mallory has already come. On July 10, 1994, at the Stormont-Vail Regional Health Center in Topeka, she was delivered by Dr. John F. Evans -- three days before her brother and three sisters. They were the first quintuplets ever born in the state of Kansas, but that distinction was quickly lost in their fights for survival. Born three months prematurely, they each weighed between 1 and 2 pounds. Mallory's brother, Evan, died after 17 days, and the girls -- Mallory, Jordan, Holly and Kasey -- didn't leave the hospital until just before Thanksgiving, four months later.
Kasey had to have heart surgery when she was 6 years old, and she and Mallory both had to have eye surgeries. There were all sorts of complications in their lives, medical and otherwise. Kasey and Mallory were found to have intellectual disabilities, but neither that nor a home life divided between their birth parents ever loosened their bond as sisters, a bond cemented by their common middle name, Quinn, for quintuplets.
The skies began to clear after the divorce and Shawn, their birth father, married Stefanie, a woman he met in cosmetology school. Skilled in auto body work, Shawn had decided to try his hand at hairdressing. Stefanie had no children of her own when they got married, but she embraced the challenge of raising the four girls.
Right down the road from the Sunset Zoo is Manhattan High School, and it was there that Mallory and Kasey found a way to find themselves. The discovery came on back-to-school night of their freshman year in 2009, when their math teacher, Kim Schnee, suggested they get involved in Special Olympics, in which she was active.
"They were very nice girls back then," says Schnee, "but they were terribly shy and talked in whispers to each other. Volleyball came first, which Mallory really excelled at, and then came basketball, which Kasey loved. Little by little, they came out of their shells and began to realize their potential -- not just as athletes, but as citizens, too."
As Stefanie recalls, "We didn't raise the girls differently than we did Jordan and Holly, so when Mallory and Kasey first started in Special Olympics, they kept bugging their sisters to join their club."
The girls also took up other sports like swimming, softball and track. Excelling at athletics gave them the confidence to go out into the world, and they became Global Messengers for Special Olympics, talking to myriad schools and groups not only about what the organization has done for them, but also about the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, an effort to educate people on how hurtful the word "r-----" is.
"We would walk the hallways of school and always hear someone using the 'R' word in a negative way just to seem cool," says Kasey.
Says Mallory, "Many people are simply not aware of the hurtful nature of the word. But people with disabilities are hurt and offended by the use of it."
A few years ago, when they were 17, all four girls visited the neonatal unit in which they were born. They gave cookies and candies and heartfelt thanks to the doctors and nurses who brought them into the world. Holly allowed as how they still think about Evan. "We talk about what he would look like," she told Ann Marie Bush of the Topeka Capital-Journal.
"It's wonderful to see how they've grown up," Evans says. "I distinctly remember delivering Mallory, who was so small she was still covered in amniotic fluid. But she was kicking like mad. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that she became an athlete and a runner."
Last summer, Mallory and Kasey competed for Kansas in basketball at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle. When it came time to assemble a team to go the Summer Games in the UAE, Mallory was selected to run track because of her speed and determination. Therein lies another story.
She began putting on weight about six years ago and was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes. So she changed her diet, threw herself into conditioning and lost 40 pounds. And with all of this change, she became a much faster runner.
Kasey wasn't selected to go to the World Games, but she has been with Mallory every step of the way in her training, and will be going to Dubai with her. Also going along on the trip will be Stefanie and her sister Jenny, and coach Jamie Schnee, the daughter of the woman who got them started in Special Olympics. "My mother is so proud of them," says Jamie. "I was actually a teacher's aide in their class when they first started high school. They were so quiet. Now look at them."
"To see how far they've come is my reward," says Kim, who's still teaching and now serves as the director for Manhattan's Special Olympics program. "Kasey and Mallory are this wonderful blend of goofy and serious, passion and compassion, intelligence and athleticism. Amazing girls, amazing family."
On a snowy school day, the Morrises have gathered in the family home. Jordan, who teaches in a preschool, and Holly, who's studying to be a nurse, have come by for lunch -- and for laughs.
Watching the four of them play the game Aggravation on a wooden board that Shawn fashioned, one realizes the name is a total misnomer: They're doing just the opposite of aggravating each other.
It's a beautiful home, made brighter by wedding photos and accented by a sign in the kitchen that reads "There's always always always something to be thankful for." It's also a busy home, what with three dogs (Cali, Rucker and Vassar) weaving in and out among the legs of the four women.
There's also a basketball hoop in the driveway that the Morris daughters constantly use, and in the basement, a fully outfitted gym and an equally impressive hair salon. "Do you know Tex Winter?" Shawn asks, referring to the Hall of Fame basketball coach from Manhattan who died last October. "I used to cut his hair." Shawn has since gone back to auto body work.
After lunch, Mallory and Kasey head downtown to the Maximum Performance gym for training. They're met there by coaches Jamie Schnee and Tonia Lee, who drives over from Topeka once a week to work with Mallory in advance of the World Games. When Mallory hits the treadmill, the entire gym seems to stop. She's killing it.
"I've been coaching track for Special Olympics for 22 years," says Lee. "I started with my oldest son. Mallory is one of the most exceptional athletes I've ever had. As hard as I push her, she never backs down, never complains. Kasey's the same way. We're going to find the right sport for her, maybe powerlifting. But she'll have a hand in how Mallory does because she's been pulling against her with a rope to make sure she stays low out of the blocks. The two of them are something."
The Opening Ceremony for the World Games will be on March 14 in Abu Dhabi, and the track-and-field competition begins the next day in Dubai. Just before she left the Little Apple on March 6 to begin her training, Mallory received a nice surprise. On her last day at Zoo Sprouts, the kids, teachers and parents threw a going-away party for her. It had a slideshow, cupcakes and a giant banner with the children's handprints. Everyone wore their Team Mallory T-Shirts.
And to think ...
As the snow leopard cub's mother says, "There is more."