Unlike most teenagers, Owen Knight didn’t want much for his 15th birthday — just a few cards would have been nice. Instead, he got hundreds of cards and presents, a parade, and new friends, while his mom found a new outlook on life. And it all started with a Facebook post.
Owen suffers from multiple illnesses, one of which is terminal. He was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy when he was 4 years old and also suffers from dilated cardiomyopathy, which is a disease of the heart muscle.
“When he was born up until he was 4, I could tell something was wrong,” Owen’s mother, Jessica VanWinkle, told Yahoo Lifestyle. “He didn’t start rolling over, he didn’t crawl, he didn’t walk, he didn’t talk. It was still like taking care of a newborn at 3 years old.” His doctors were unable to diagnose him, but his daycare teacher could. “His teacher happened to know someone else with Duchenne’s disease and recognized the symptoms, and she called the hospital and set us up to meet with them, and he was diagnosed.” Four years later, they found out about Owen’s heart disease. “His heart is tripled in size and doesn’t work properly,” his mom said. “And then it’s just been on and on. He’s had many, many, many surgeries, everything you could think of.”
Owen has two siblings, one of whom has his own health problems. “But because of medical things his older brother and I have gone through, it was just part of our life, it was just like every day something else went wrong or something bad happened,” Jessica said. “We joked around and said we were cursed. We just felt like we could never take a step forward.”
For these reasons and more, Jessica has always kept to herself. “We’re very humble people,” she said of her family, who lives in Webster, New York. “I’ve never borrowed, I’ve never complained. I would never ask for help because I knew I couldn’t repay. We never have guests, we never go anywhere.”
So, for this big birthday on Nov. 7, Jessica’s sister and Owen’s aunt Amy VanWinkle just wanted to put a smile on the boy’s face. All he wanted for his birthday was a card or two.
“Three months ago he started letting his aunt know that his birthday was coming up and could she please send him a card,” Jessica said.
Every day he reminded Amy about the card. Little did he know, his aunt would deliver, literally and figuratively. “She said, ‘Would it be OK if I did a post asking if my friends could send one, too?’ And I’m still struggling to figure out Facebook, so I told her yes, thinking Facebook was just a thing where your friends are and she would ask them,” the mother said.
At this point, Owen’s goal was to get five cards in the mail, so his mom figured this would be a good way to get the extra four.
So, last week Amy posted photos of her nephew on Facebook, along with the request and Owen’s address.
The response was bigger than this quiet family could have ever imagined. Amy’s post was shared over 1,600 times. Then Owen’s sister Amber posted as well, and her message was shared almost 1,200 times. Then Owen’s home aide Mike Gessin posted about Owen and his birthday, and his message was shared almost 500 times.
“Amy called me and was like, ‘It took off,’” Jessica said. New to Facebook, Jessica wasn’t sure what that meant. “So she brought me her phone and neither of us really understood how many people it was reaching, but I had people calling me and texting me and messaging me about all three of the posts.”
Over the next few days, the family was blown away by strangers’ acts of kindness.
People starting showing up on their doorstep to hand deliver cards and gifts to Owen, including a cop. “A Webster police officer showed up at my door, and he said that they saw my sister’s post and that they wanted to help.” So Jessica simply asked them to install new smoke and gas detectors. But the police wanted to do more. “Other than that, on all the holidays they have parades in the village, and for the past 10 years Owen has begged me every year, every parade, ‘Can I drive my wheelchair with them, can I be in it?’ But most of the time you have to be in a sport or something to be in the parade.” Jessica mentioned that to the cop, and he ran with it. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you have any pull but one other thing is that Owen’s always wanted to be in the parade. Like, don’t go out of your way but can he just drive his wheelchair alongside?’” The next thing she knew, the community was organizing a parade just for Owen’s birthday.
“I figured maybe it would be one cop car, a fire truck, he loves fire trucks. Instead, it became this huge thing, there was SWAT there, policeman, fire trucks, ambulances, loaders, construction vehicles, Batman with his vehicle. It was an actual parade just like in the village,” Jessica recalled. “It went to his school, and when we walked through the front doors, all the students came out and lined the hallway and sang happy birthday. They had cake. The marching band was playing. It was amazing.”
Owen had a very busy day. But he didn’t forget about the cards.
“Until yesterday, Owen kept checking the mail and there wasn’t a thing,” Jessica said. “There were people handing us cards personally, but nothing showed up in the mailbox and that’s really what he wanted.”
So his mom called the post office on Wednesday. “They said, ‘let me look, I think he might have got two.’ And she came back to the phone and said, ‘I apologize we have three giant mail bags and a bin.’”
That’s when they realized how many people his aunt’s initial post reached. Mailmen showed up the next day when Owen was in school to drop off everything.
“There were packages too,” Jessica said. “I told my sister all we need is words of encouragement because there are so many days where he wants to give up.” They’ve gotten bad news from doctors lately, including the difficult news that this could be his final birthday.
But this delivery was the encouragement they needed. “Owen’s bus pulled up and he came in and saw the cards on the floor, and he was just in shock. Emotionally, it was just so much. There’s been a bunch of times when he’s just cried.” His mom was overwhelmed, too. “We kept feeling bad that all these people were going out of their way for us. But between the both of us, just looking at each other in awe, it was a lot of happy tears.”
But it wasn’t time to go through the cards yet. They still had guests to entertain.
“When he got home, people were kind of showing up one at a time nonstop with a card or gift.” Jessica wasn’t used to this kind of company. “Pretty much my whole life I’ve been shy and quiet, I like to be invisible. So it was scary at first, but I wanted every person to see me, have a conversation with me, tell me their story. And each person just made me cry.”
And the gifts kept coming. “The construction people from the parade ended up showing up that night with a loader completely full of gifts, and they dumped the bucket in my driveway.” One of the gifts was a TV. “Owen, knowing we don’t have a lot of money, for Christmas, he really wanted a TV, and he’d say, ‘I know that’s a lot but that’s all I want.’ And they brought us a TV.”
Then Batman showed up, and followed by YouTube star Mindy Davey dropped by with gifts and pizza.
“He got his first flowers ever. He was so excited because he’s never received flowers before,” Jessica said, laughing. “He was still using sheets from when he was a little kid, and he got all new bedding. And then a sign company that just opened up in Webster handmade Owen a Blacks Ops 3 sign for his wall. It’s gorgeous.”
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