15-year-old with terminal illness gets birthday cards from thousands after mom's request goes viral

Owen Knight, center, just wanted five cards for his birthday, but he and his mom got so much more after a family member’s Facebook post went viral. (Photo: Mindy Davey)

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.”

Birthdays have not been easy, for many reasons. “They’re bittersweet because you don’t want [the kids] to get older because you know what that means,” she said. “Every day, kids as young as 7 years old are passing from Duchenne’s disease. So it’s scary.” Plus, she’s never been able to give Owen the type of birthday she thinks he deserves. “Financially, we just meet our bills, so there’s no going to the zoo or the movies or birthday parties. Every year I could tell he was sad but trying to not let me know, and there were other times where he would ask me questions like ‘How come nobody came for my birthday?’” she shared. “I know I’ve given him enough love. But it was the other stuff. There were so many times when I was like, man, if he had a family with money, he could get to do the things he should get to.”

For these reasons and more, Jessica has always kept to herself. “We’re very humble people,” she said of her family, which lives in Webster, N.Y. “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, Amy VanWinkle, Jessica’s sister and Owen’s aunt, just hoped 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 that 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.

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, policemen, 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 had reached. Mail carriers 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 the postal 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, followed by YouTube star Mindy Davey, who 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 Black Ops 3 sign for his wall. It’s gorgeous.”

One of the last guests paid a virtual visit: Malcolm from MKTO, the family’s favorite band, recorded a personal birthday message for Owen.

The most surprising guest, however, might have been Jessica’s mom, from whom she is estranged. She came to the house after hearing the news about Owen’s birthday.

Owen spent much of Wednesday evening greeting guests and making new friends, so he “didn’t really get to tackle the cards ’til late,” Jessica said. “After everybody left, Owen was like, ‘Everyone sent these cards — it’s really important to them that I start opening them on my birthday.’ So he did start, he was opening them, reading them, so happy. It’s emotional; we need to take breaks.”

He got through about 100 that night, but Jessica said that didn’t even make a dent. Needless to say, Owen’s never had a birthday like this. “Normally he has hospital appointments,” Jessica said.

However, this experience has given Jessica a whole new outlook on life. In a thank-you Facebook post the day after Owen’s birthday, she expressed her heartfelt thanks, writing, “Everything my son has ever wanted and I could never give, you did.” 

I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who liked, commented, sent a birthday message, shared, messaged us…

Posted by Jessica VanWinkle on Thursday, November 8, 2018

Unsurprisingly, Owen is still begging his mom to open the birthday cards, while she has already started writing thank-you notes. The 15-year-old’s only complaint is that “it’s starting to hurt to smile so much,” and Jessica said that’s the “best thing” she’s ever heard him say.

The shy mother knows things will soon return to normal, but she’s not worried. “The good stuff like never feeling alone again will last forever.”

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