A Cascade of Cards
People From Near, Far Send Charlestown Boy Christmas Surprise
Diane Milliken checks the mail with her son Justin at their home in Charlestown, N.H., on December 20, 2013. Justin, a 13-year-old who has cerebral pasly, has been receiving dozens of Christmas cards every day after his mother posted about him on social media. Many include the color green, and/or mention the Red Sox or the Ellen TV show, which are some of his favorite things. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
A hand-made Boston Red Sox stocking that was sent by a stranger hangs next to a photo of Justin Milliken at his home in Charlestown, N.H., on December 20, 2013. Justin, a 13-year-old who has cerebral pasly, has been receiving dozens of Christmas cards every day after his mother posted about him on social media. Many include the color green, and/or mention the Red Sox or the Ellen TV show, which are some of his favorite things. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Justin Milliken, center plays around with his para-educators Stacie Merritt, left, and Tamara Whitney, right, at his home in Charlestown, N.H., on December 20, 2013. Justin has been receiving dozens of Christmas cards every day after his mother posted about him on social media. Many include the color green, and mention the Red Sox or the Ellen TV show, which are some of his favorite things. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Charlestown — With the holidays looming, paraprofessional Marie Heller searched high, low and wide for just the right Yuletide mission on which to send the students she advises for the yearbook at Charlestown Middle School.
“Every year the kids in the recycling club find a family in need of Christmas presents or food,” Heller said last week. “Another (extracurricular) group collects books. So I was thinking, ‘What could the yearbook do?’ It's the time of year to do something.
“So I went on Facebook.”
Almost immediately, the social network delivered a gift that keeps on giving: a post from the mother of wheelchair-bound, 13-year-old Justin Milliken, right in Charlestown.
On Dec. 6, Dianne “Dee” LaCroix Milliken had written on her page, and on the Justin Milliken's Journey page, asking Facebook friends to send, and encourage their friends and families, to “send him a card, or have your kids draw a picture of a snowman, snowflakes … anything” to their home on Douglas Street.
“I really didn’t know what to get him for Christmas,” Dee Milliken said last week. “I was really just thinking of what makes him happy. I didn’t want to go out and buy him things he can’t really use.”
By the time the yearbook club, and just about everyone else at the middle school, had started assembling cards and snowflakes and other season's greetings — “One of my boys did a 3D video, where a baseball goes right at you,” Weller said — the avalanche already was thundering into the Milliken home.
And Justin, who is confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, seizures, and other conditions, and attends the special-education skills center in nearby Walpole, was riding the wave.
“The other day, I was dropping him at home after school, and I brought him into the house without taking him to the mailbox first,” said Stacie Merritt, one of two paraprofessionals from the Fall Mountain School District who see to Justin's needs. “I completely forgot about it. He glared at me. He looked out the window, looked at me, looked out the window again. So I went out there for him, and got his mail.
“He knows. He's so excited.”
Maybe even more excited than when the Boston Red Sox went from skulking in the cellar of the American League in 2012 to lifting the World Series trophy this past October.
And at least as excited as when comedian Ellen DeGeneres dances at the start of her syndicated daily talk show on TV.
“The first day he got two cards, which I thought was great and he thought was great,” Dee Milliken said. “Before I knew it, they just started pouring in. (On Dec. 14), he got the first batch of cards from Charlestown Middle School. … It was interesting that the teachers all saw (Weller's shared post of Milliken's initial Facebook post) and posted it on their pages. There's so much that they're teaching their kids, but they're also teaching about showing compassion. The kinds of cards the kids are sending go like, ‘We hope you get better,’ and talk about how they like so many of the same things, like the Red Sox and Ellen. For kids who never met him to see how they're alike rather than how he's different, is just so amazing.
“I couldn't have asked for a better present — for me or for Justin. Every day, I can see my son light up and laugh.”
Some of the cards mailed to the Milliken residence — from as far away as Alaska and New Zealand — contained colorful glitter and snowflakes that would launch into the air when opened. Justin’s cheerful giggle would follow the opening of each card, especially the ones that sang.
Last Friday, after a long day’s journey into night that included a field trip, Justin showed less interest in the 31 cards in the mailbox than when Stacie Merritt would arrive to share in the light and the laughter.
While reading some of the greetings with him, Merritt marveled again at the progress he has made since she started working with the then-three-year-old.
“He's made some pretty significant gains,” Merritt, who also works with Justin at home for his mother with funding from a regional social-service agency, said two days later. “When he was younger, he was very shy, and to an extent he still is. But he loves being around people. As he gets older, it intensifies. He likes to watch them. He likes to interact with them.
“He's such a smart little boy. The first day I saw him getting his mail, it was just an awesome feeling, to see him so happy.”
Not to mention his mom.
“Last year, we got one Christmas card all year, from my (late) father and stepmom,” Dee Milliken said. “This year, it's hundreds (294 through Monday’s mail).
“I don't think people realize how much joy they're bringing.”
At least one of them knows how much she's getting back.
“My husband keeps asking me what I want for Christmas,” Marie Heller said. “I just say, 'I don't want anything.'
“This was it.”
Justin's team is crossing its collective fingers for people near and far to continue lighting his life after they dispose of their trees and gift wrap and pack away the decorations.
“Even if he gets one letter a day, or every other day … he loves it so much,” Stacie Merritt concluded. “I hope we can keep it going.”
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 603-727-3304.