Faith in humanity restored

Sydney Page

THE WASHINGTON POST – Carson Swazey does not read, write or speak, but he just sparked a spontaneous letter-writing campaign that’s all about joy and giving – and it’s gone international.

The 19-year-old Canadian, who has autism, will soon be the recipient of a torrent of personalised cards, mailed to him from strangers around the world.

Carson received widespread attention after his mother, Amanda Kinney, 46, posted on Facebook last week.

She shared that he recently lost more than 75 pounds, in part by taking a daily walk to the local post office, which is 15 minutes away, with support staffers. Once there, he opens his personal mailbox, hoping to find letters. But recently the box has been empty.

“He received some cards in June for his grad and in July for his birthday,” she wrote on November 5. “He enjoys opening the box and looking for mail and carrying it home to open. Lately there hasn’t been any mail for him.”

Kinney noted that her son was frustrated when his mailbox was bare, which curbed his incentive to exercise.

So, she made a request: “Any letters, cards, pictures, or drawings mailed to him would be greatly appreciated! Receiving mail helps to keep him motivated on his daily walks and brings excitement and happiness to his day.”

ABOVE & BELOW: More than 14 gifts have arrived for Carson so far, including a Christmas picture book, hockey cards, a handcrafted hat, a backpack and other trinkets; and Carson has received nearly 20 letters so far, with thousands more expected in the coming weeks. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Carson and Bridgette Wiersema, his full-time support aide, after picking up a batch of letters and packages at the post office this week

Kinney included her son’s personal PO Box address and wrote, “Please feel free to share this post.”

Stranger after stranger responded, pledging to send cards. Nearly 3,000 shared the post, and many asked about his interests so they could send him something he likes.

In recent days, Carson has already received nearly 20 letters and more than a dozen gift packages to his PO Box, including a stuffed animal, a handcrafted hat, sticker books and a backpack, with many more cards and gifts on the way.

“It was just beautiful. People are kind – they really are,” said Kinney, who is an oncology nurse in Alberta, where she lives with her four sons; Carson is the second-oldest.

Since people asked, she replied that Carson loves nature, swimming and snow, as well as Christmas, shiny things and various cartoons.

“For me, this has turned into something much bigger than just him receiving mail,” she wrote. “This is about the compassion of strangers who are embracing my son with love and respect. His interests are being valued without judgement. I am truly humbled by this outpouring of support.”

Kinney has also received messages from hundreds of people who were touched by her son’s story.

“Many other families with autistic children reached out,” she said, adding that people wrote to her on Facebook from around Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. “I am just so overwhelmed by the outpour of support.”

Maria Somers, 28, who lives in Cleveland, said the post jumped out at her because her little brother is on the autism spectrum. “All my heartstrings were pulled,” said Somers, who is sending Carson a card.

Edith Edeus, 49, a teacher for special-needs students in Sterling, Illanois, came across the post and decided she would send a card, too. “I’ve worked with kids on the spectrum for almost four years now. I know how hard this year has been for all of us, but even more so for our kids,” Edeus said. “If there is anything I can do to help give them a sense of ‘normal,’ I’m all for it, even if it’s something as small as a card or a letter.”

Edeus shared Kinney’s post with her four children, who are all making cards for Carson. She then showed the principal of the special-education school where she works, and they agreed that all students would send cards.

Plenty of others were touched by Kinney’s Facebook post, including Susan Peterson-Parsons, 79, who lives in North Kingstown, and has worked with special-needs children.

“I’ve always been somebody who is drawn to anybody who has disabilities,” Peterson-Parsons said. “I care deeply.”

She’s getting ready to mail her first batch of cards to Carson and has a reminder in her calendar to send him cards for the next five years on Christmas and his birthday in July.

“I know eventually this will slow down, but I plan to send him cards regularly,” Peterson-Parsons said.

For Kinney, the kindness of complete strangers has been surprising but delightful, she said. “People are just so generous,” Kinney said. “I wasn’t looking for sympathy. I was looking for acceptance and for people to see and know my son.”

Carson received a high school certificate in June after completing a life-skills programme. Before the pandemic, he volunteered regularly at a local food bank, library and nature center. Since his activities were halted in March because of the pandemic, Carson has little to do with his days.

“He has been confined to the house, and he doesn’t understand why he can’t go to the places he usually goes,” said Kinney, adding that her son also has an intellectual disability.

Kinney suggested walking as an activity, both to occupy Carson’s time and to help him lose weight.

“As his mom, all I’ve ever wanted him to be is happy, and food made him happy,” she said. “But this is my son, and I want him to be healthy. I want him to live a long life. I knew I had to take control of it, so that’s what I did.”

In addition to his regular walks to the post office, Carson has been on a ketogenic diet since April, which is centred on low-carb, high-fat foods. Kinney said she has noticed a marked improvement in his energy levels in recent months as a result. She does not endorse the diet for everyone, saying that it may not be the best choice for some but that it has been helpful or her son.

And having somewhere to go every day, she said, has been a big motivator to exercise. Carson has been going daily since June.

“It’s a task that we do, and he gets a reward when he gets there,” Kinney said.

The reward is the cards, and given the overwhelming response to the Facebook post, it’s likely his mailbox will be brimming with letters for weeks or months to come.

Experts vouched for the positive impact this will have on Carson’s physical and emotional well-being.

“There’s a false assumption that people who are autistic don’t want to be around others and don’t seek connection. But we all want to feel connected,” said Kristie Patten, an occupational therapist and professor at New York University specialising in autism-spectrum disorders, who also plans to send a card. “This will be a big self-esteem boost for him.”

Helen Tager-Flusberg, director of the Center for Autism Research Excellence and a psychology professor at Boston University, agreed. “What is heartwarming about this story is not only that he’s receiving the mail but that his family has built a whole programme,” she said.