This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Shamara Davenport and Brittiny Denny have covered sheets of blank paper with faces made of construction paper, hair made of yarn, sparkling beads for earrings and tiny, Chiclet-sized snippets of paper for teeth.

The pieces are family portraits, created in an art class at Hibriten High School. But for Shamara and Brittiny, both Exceptional Children students at Hibriten, this is more than just a class project – it’s a victory.

Both girls are on the autism spectrum. They’re students in an art class specifically for special-needs students, taught by Margaret Martine. And both had pieces selected for display in “Yo Soy … Je Suis … I Am … My family,” an international art contest for children with disabilities sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.Their pieces will be on display at either the U.S. Department of Education or the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington through the month of November.

In an interview Friday, both girls talked about the portraits they created, which show their faces along with the faces of various family members.

Shamara, who is in the 11th grade, pointed to each of the paper faces she’d set against a floral background.

“These are my parents,” she said. “My grandma. My daddy. My sister.”

Even during the interview, she drew, creating a house, sun and grassy yard in pencil on white paper.

“Shamara always jumps right in,” Martine said. “You give her the art supplies, she goes to town.”

Tenth-grader Brittiny pointed out individual elements of her artwork, from the creamy brown paper that made up her face to the pink, plastic beads she’d chosen for her earrings.

She didn’t talk much, but her grin – stretched wide across her face, ending in a crinkle at both eyes – said it all.

Martine had entered piles of pieces into the competition. When she found out these two had been collected, she called both girls’ mothers, silently panicking because she didn’t know whether they had saved the drawings.

Her panic wasn’t necessary. Both – Shamara’s mother, Janice Davenport, and Brittiny’s, Angela Puac Puac, are the type to save every card, drawing and beaded necklace.

Before she hung up the phone, Davenport stopped to confirm the spelling of Martine’s name.

“I have to put this on Facebook,” she told her.

The 2012 fall semester was the first time Martine taught an art class exclusively for special-needs students. Not much is different about the instruction, she said – it still focuses on the basic principals of art. It’s the student’s hearts that stand out to her.

“They have so much more to overcome,” she said. “When you see them come in here with joy and with enthusiasm to create, it’s fantastic.”

To create their prize-winning pieces, Brittiny and Shamara shuffled through sheets of paper specifically designed to represent various skin colors. Each student in the class held sheets up to their faces, trying to choose the perfect shade. Then they crafted the faces of their family members, crowding around the paper versions of themselves on the paper.

Some of those family members were present on Friday, quietly watching as the girls were interviewed. Both mothers came to the school, along with Mary Kathleen McNeal, Brittiny’s grandmother, and Janine Davenport, Shamara’s aunt.

“Who is that?” Martine asked, pointing to the paper versions of Brittiny’s family members. “It’s the people who love you, isn’t it?”