Nathan Bonsteel absolutely cannot believe it.
He’s celebrating his birthday with his family, and he’s just walked out of their East Long Beach home to find something impossible.
Nathan turned 21 years old today. Two facts about him: Nathan has Downs syndrome, and he loves getting mail with his name on it more than anything else you could name on planet Earth.
That’s why he can’t believe what he’s looking at: a table with more than 3,100 cards and more than 150 packages, all for him. They’ve come from all over–from every corner of Nathan’s city, his country, his world.
His family is looking on with tears in their eyes as he runs around the table and slaps his hands to his cheeks in disbelief. This is a moment where everything is too good to be true, where his greatest wish has arrived and it’s even better than he imagined.
“Oh my gosh!” he yells. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you.”
A Mother’s Love, Inspiration
It’s been a hard year.
Nathan has been in and out of doctor’s appointments with health scares, including a false alarm that had his parents, Cindy and Louis, fearful that their son had leukemia. And of course there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed life for everyone. It was hard to explain to Nathan why his favorite places were closed, or why there weren’t going to be any family trips to Disneyland for awhile.
Nathan’s mother was feeling down, and part of it was the negativity she saw reflected everywhere, especially on the social media website Nextdoor.
“I’ve been noticing on Nextdoor that people have been being unkind to each other,” she said. “Nathan is pure happiness. And I just thought that people needed that happiness.”
She had an idea, a spark of inspiration that’s turned into a beautiful story about community spirit, but also a mother’s love.
“Nathan loves getting any piece of mail, he cherishes it,” she said. “So I thought I’d put it out there on Nextdoor to see how it would go, if people would send him cards for his birthday. The response has really touched me. He’s received over 3,175 cards and 150 packages. I was hoping for, maybe, 50 cards. I can’t believe how far everyone went to love on my son, to love on my family. It’s touched me a great deal.”
The Big Day
On Nathan’s birthday, everything is perfect. He walks out the front door of his house with his dad to find his mom, his siblings, his extended family, and a table overflowing with mail for him. It’s come from all over the world: from England, from Canada, and from every corner of Long Beach.
The Dirtbags sent him a baseball jersey signed by every member of the team. Long Beach State athletic director Andy Fee sent custom shoes. The Long Beach Poly and Millikan football teams sent gifts, and there are cards from schools and classes and city officials. There are enough packages and cards to keep Nathan busy opening them for half of the next year–and for as generous as many of the gifts are, his joy is powerful with each postcard or small envelope.
Messages of love have also arrived not in an envelope but in person. One of Nathan’s aides from when he was a student at Buffum Elementary is there with a picture of him in fifth grade, and a bird handler stopped by with an owl perched on her hand, which Nathan is fascinated by.
He’s overwhelmed by it all in a wonderful way, opening cards and running around to show his siblings and his parents.
This was the moment that his mother wanted for him. It’s a hard truth that many parents of young adults with special needs live with: there’s a strong infrastructure in local schools to help their kids feel included in a campus community. After graduation, a lot of that infrastructure disappears.
“Nathan, having special needs, nobody was going to call him on his 21st birthday and say, ‘Hey Buddy, let’s go grab a beer,’” said Cindy. “He doesn’t get invited to birthday parties. And I just hoped this would make him feel special. The city of Long Beach just picked up that ball and ran farther than I ever thought it would go.”
There are more happy surprises coming for Nathan. He doesn’t know that a few days after his birthday his family is taking him to Disneyland, or that tickets to an Angels game are on their way that will let him get up close to his hero Mike Trout.
What he does know is his family’s love. And what he can see is a city and a community that love him too, drawn into his story by a mother’s simple request to make her baby’s birthday a special one. On the table in front of his house he can see the physical evidence of a community’s love for one of its children, that special thing people talk about when they talk about Long Beach.
“This has shown me that there’s goodness in people, more goodness than we think,” said Cindy. “I can’t say how thankful I am to the whole city.”