Mason D'Amato had that smile. The one that people will always remember when they think of him.

The more than 400 visitors during calling hours for Mason D'Amato after his death April 24 mentioned it time and again.

So did classmates and teachers who remembered the Pickerington High School North sophomore during a celebration of his life May 10 at the school.

It's a lasting memory for Mason's mother.

"He just always had a really big smile on his face," said Danielle Budreau, D'Amato's mother. "It actually made it difficult for him to talk when he was little, but medication helped.

"After that, when he was about 6 or 7, you couldn't get him to stop talking."

D'Amato, 17, was born with cerebral palsy that caused spasms and eventually stiffened his muscles, forcing him to use a wheelchair and a specially-designed bicycle to get around.

He died in Nationwide Children's Hospital, four or five days after an apparent bout of bacterial meningitis.

At last week's celebration of life, PHS North students, staff and others from the community watched a montage remembering D'Amato. It displayed his signature smile throughout, as well as scene after scene of him at the center of everyone's attention.

"Mason was loved and adored by his teachers and classmates," said Molly Zeiher, a multiple disabilities intervention specialist at North.

"He loved school and loved riding the bus even more, the bumpier the better.

"His smile was infectious and his laugh was contagious," Zeiher said.

"He was the extra teacher I didn't know I needed. He kept everyone in line, including his teachers."

In an era when school districts are graded on student achievement and progress, Zeiher said, "Mason's value could never be measured with a test score, but in the feeling he left on all of us."

Magan Haas, another multiple disabilities intervention specialist at North, said the loss is another reminder of how much impact students have on lives in their district and community.

"The main lesson that I think Mason taught me was the key to happiness," Haas said. "Mason took in each moment."

Haas said D'Amato was incredibly perceptive, noticing conversations, sounds and smells -- particularly food cooking in the school cafeteria.

He enjoyed feeling air on his skin when school bus windows were open, and he closely observed how his muscles felt during physical therapy and gym class.

"Mason not only fully took in every experience his day had to offer but had gratitude for these experiences," Haas said. "This gratitude led to the pure joy that could be seen in the biggest smile in the world.

"Mason had the best smile."

Brady Penna, a special-needs senior at North, met D'Amato in the seventh grade through the YMCA's Camp Can Do.

Aided by technology that verbalizes his thoughts, Penna said D'Amato was a "very good friend" whose fascination with his muscles was part of his fun-loving lifestyle.

"He had the best biceps," Penna said. "Suns out. Guns out.

"I will really miss him."

Others remembered D'Amato as someone who loved talking about family -- his mother, her partner, Amy Lewis; his father and stepmother, Seth and Tonya D'Amato; and his half-sister, Mia D'Amato -- and watching golf with his grandfather.

When he was younger, he played baseball in the Miracle League of Central Ohio, a volunteer-run baseball league for children with physical and mental challenges.

Budreau said he also enjoyed going for rides and, particularly, Sundays at LifeChange Church with his dad.

"He loved to go to church with his dad," she said. "He loved to scream 'Hallelujah' and to sing the songs.

"He was one of a kind."

After presenting Budreau with a basket of gift certificates paid for with money raised by North students and staff, and just before a launch of balloons in his memory, classmates asked guests to perform acts of kindness at home, at school or in the community to honor D'Amato's.

"We think the best way to honor Mason is to be kind and share a smile," said Katie Miller, a North junior.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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