February 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

World responds to a mother's plea for son's birthday

An outpouring of well-wishes started after a mother made a plea on the Happy Birthday Colin Facebook page. )

Can a 10-year old boy and his mom change the world?

It was simple and direct, a Facebook appeal from Jennifer Cunningham, the mother of Colin, a 10-year-old boy from tiny Richland, near Kalamazoo.

She hoped she could enlist strangers to wish her son well on his March 9 birthday, still a month away.

“When I asked him if he wanted a party for his birthday, he said there wasn’t a point because he has no friends. He eats alone in the office every day because no one will let him sit with them, Jennifer wrote on Feb. 2. “So I thought if I could create a page where people could send him ... encouraging words, that would be better than any birthday party.”

Her Facebook request is stripped to the essentials, but it is vivid in its articulation of a child’s suffering.

There is the photograph of Colin — bespectacled, bright-eyed. And his situation, a boy without friends, eating lunch alone, without a single school friend to invite to his birthday party.

Few of us have experienced starvation or even malaria. But the loneliness of a child, so starkly portrayed, inspires empathy, the understanding that this woman’s child could be yours, or could be and maybe once was you.

The response was immediate and as warm as a hug.

A man wrote that he’d had no friends at 13 but he is now a successful executive, with friends and the feeling of belonging to a team.

Soldiers wrote from Afghanistan, expressing their own loneliness.

A missionary posted from Outer Mongolia, with a prayer.

Two days later, back on Facebook, Jennifer exulted in over 50 posts from around the country. She offered a video of Colin, who has symptoms similar to a mild form of autism, on the way to occupational therapy, chatting into the camera.

She was trying to keep her public plea a secret until Colin’s birthday, but even she was struggling.

“All the love and support is causing me to just cry, and Colin keeps asking me ‘Are you okay mom, what’s wrong?!’ ” she wrote.

“He doesn’t know about this page yet, so I’ve been telling him I’m watching sad videos.”

So it grew, bit by bit, to about 50,000 “likes” by Wednesday morning, as people shared their feelings and good wishes with a boy named Colin.

(You can, too, at Happy Birthday Colin on Facebook or P.O. Box 756, Richland, MI 49083-0757.)

That morning, boosted by the airing of a TVstory, the post gained a whoosh of momentum that stunned WJBK Fox 2 senior web producer Dennis Kraniak. By late Wednesday, more than 39 million people had visited the Fox 2 page that had never attracted more than a million visits.

Media outlets around the world followed. And by the afternoon, over 1.4 million people had “liked” Jennifer’s Facebook page, and the numbers were still exploding.

Colin wants to be a pastor, a comedian or a missionary. He asks the school principal not to punish kids who taunt him “because everyone deserves forgiveness.”

To his peers, he is different in a way that’s disturbing. But adults recognize in him their own vulnerabilities, their child selves.

If bullying, or avoiding people who are different, is somehow instinctive to people, so are these explosive, passionate, unpredictable bursts of caring — even for a little boy few know, whose last name has been kept secret.

Some strange alchemy of a mother’s love and a boy’s sweet face have reached, touched and moved more than a million people to take action. And that is something.

(313) 222-2032
Laura Berman’s column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

Jennifer Cunningham of Richland holds letters that have poured in. (Facebook)