MILWAUKEE – Happy birthday, Devon.
Eleven years old. How about that? Like your mom says, you're one tough kid. You're all about beating the odds.
Sorry these best wishes are so belated. We didn’t know.
We found out about your birthday the same way a thousand or so other people found out. Someone told someone who told someone else.
And when someone finally told us, we were grateful to be included. Deeply grateful. So we hope you don’t mind if we tell a few more people about you. They might want to be included in the ever-widening circle of kindness that surrounds you.
Devon Sweeney was born on June 28, 2007.
He has a genetic abnormality and other conditions that over the short span of his life have worn his body down.
Devon used to be able to do just about everything. Ride a bike. Play soccer. Go to school. Then, a couple of years ago, he could no longer walk. Now, he finds it exhausting to simply sit.
The things that most people do automatically, such as breathing, or swallowing, or digesting, Devon finds those things problematic. He's always a little cold. His pupils remain dilated, so he has to wear tinted glasses. His mother keeps the windows of their home covered and the lights dim to preserve what vision Devon has left.
Devon wasn’t expected to live as long as he has, and as his 11th birthday approached, his family worried that he wouldn't see his 12th. They wanted to do something really amazing.
Devon has a map of the United States, and he likes to study it, even though it's unlikely he'll be doing much traveling. His family decided that maybe they could get someone from every state to send Devon a birthday card.
To have Devon know that people all over the country were pulling for him. That would be magic.
Devon, his little sister, Skylar, and his big brother, Sean, live with their mom, Amanda, in Lake Tomahawk, a tiny town in the North Woods of Wisconsin.
Most people have never heard of it. A nationwide birthday card drive? That seemed a little quixotic.
But Amanda’s parents stepped up to challenge.
Sandy and John Schultz live north of Milwaukee in Hartford. They called everyone they had ever known and several they didn't. They posted a call-out on Devon’s Facebook page. They printed leaflets that told Devon's story and handed them out wherever they went.
“We have been told that he only has a few more months with us so we wanted to make his upcoming birthday a special one,” they wrote.
Hundreds of cards began to arrive.
Then, hundreds more.
The way word spread was serendipitous, if not downright strange. A federal air marshal from New York, for example, heard about Devon from a comedian from Texas while he was in Berlin.
One of the loveliest things about the drive, Devon's family says, was how it gave people a reason to contact each other.
A woman called her aunt for the first time since her mother died. Veterans called people they had once served with. An elderly woman in Michigan who thought she had no family or friends remembered someone she hadn’t spoken to in decades.
But she had a phone number. So she tried it. And her old friend answered. The woman discovered she wasn’t alone after all.
The plan was to present Devon with his cards at his birthday party on June 30. The night before the party, family members spent 2½ hours opening boxes and boxes of cards and recording where they came from.
There were 867 cards. From 12 countries. And 49 states. Missing? Alabama.
A late-night plea went out on social media and a letter was rushed to Tomahawk by priority overnight mail.
“Dear Devon,” the letter began.
“On behalf of the State of Alabama, congratulations on your eleventh birthday.”
The letter was printed on official stationery and signed by the governor herself, Kay Ivey.
Since his birthday, hundreds of more cards have arrived at Devon’s home. More arrive each day.
So, again, happy birthday, Devon. And thank you.
Thank you, in this divided time, for giving us an opportunity to come together in a spirit of kindness, compassion and decency.
Here's to you Devon, and here's to life — fleeting precious life.
You can send a card to Devon Sweeney at 7040 Bass Lake Road, Lake Tomahawk, WI 54539.