Payton Haynes, a 5-year-old with several scars as a result of brain surgeries, was expecting a surprise when he went to Cracker Trail Elementary School in Sebring, Florida, on Friday, May 24.
Still, he couldn’t contain his excitement when some 100 second-graders presented him with an extra special gift: a custom-made doll that looks just like him, scars and all!
“Payton was beside himself when he opened it. It was the cutest thing ever,” school teacher Elisabeth Prendergast tells PEOPLE. “He said, ‘Hey, he has my scars!’ That was his initial reaction. He knew those were his scars. He smiled from ear to ear.”
Payton, who does not attend the elementary school, was born with craniosynostosis, a birth defect in which a baby’s skull bones connect too early, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also has hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid in the brain cavities.
He underwent his first brain surgery at just 3 months old and a nine-hour brain surgery last year, Good Morning America reported. As a result, Payton has a nearly five-inch scar on the back of his skull and another on his abdomen, his mother, Kristin Haynes, told GMA.
When the second-graders at Cracker Trail Elementary learned of Haynes’ health journey, they were eager to put a smile on his face. The students had raised $500 in their annual fundraiser and told Prendergast that they wanted to use the money to help a child with medical issues.
“I reached out to the classrooms and I shared the idea and they just thought it was so cool because they’re kids. To give a doll … was a pretty neat thing for them,” Prendergast says. noting that she received guidance from a local charity who matched her with Kristin.
With that, she contacted custom doll-maker Amy Jandrisevits and connected her with Kristin so the pair could collaborate and craft the perfect doll for Haynes.
Payton sported a wide smile that day when he received the doll.
“He said, ‘He looks just like me’ … For my little boy, there is nothing out there that just looks like him,” Kristin told GMA. “I thought it’d be amazing for him to look down and see something that reflects himself.”
The seven classes of second-graders sat on the lawn waiting for Payton.
“It was just the sweetest thing ever. Their faces just lit up!” Prendergast recalls to PEOPLE. “They cheered, they clapped, they cheered and clapped some more. They learned charity and empathy, and it was really amazing.”
Now, Kristin says the family plans to use the doll to educate Payton’s peers and raise awareness of his condition.
“Payton will go to school and it’s much easier to take a doll with us and say, ‘Hey, Payton has had some big surgeries under his hair and that may be why he can’t play contact sports or has to leave for a doctor’s appointment,” Kristin told GMA.
Kristin adds, “A lot of this for us moving forward is going to be teaching him to be an advocate for himself and educating other people.”
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