EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – There was an emotional reunion in New Jersey this week for the mother of an autistic girl and a stranger she met on a plane.
As CBS 2’s Sonia Rincon reported, the letter from a grateful mother of a little girl with autism went viral almost overnight.
The message to the patient and kind businessman who sat next to 3-year-old Kate on a plane was shared again and again and found its way to him.
“I only wrote it thinking the few people that followed my blog would read it and know we had a great experience and I never in a million years thought it would reach Eric,” Kate’s mother Shanell Mouland told Rincon.
The Moulands are from Canada and Eric Kunkel lives in New Jersey.
Kunkel was the man who never corrected little Kate when she called him “Daddy” and engaged her in conversation.
“I just said yeah, OK. I mean, it’s just a little girl trying to deal with a situation that I think being on a plane for any 3-year-old is a stressful time,” Kunkel said.
His family was in another row, and Kate’s real Daddy was also on the plane with her sister. Mouland said she never thought Kunkel would be so understanding when he sat down.
“I looked at him and I thought he’s got business to take care of, he’s not going to want to deal with Kate,” Mouland told Rincon.
She said she judged him and was wrong.
In her letter, Mouland wrote that she had been nervous when she and her daughter first sat down.
“For a fleeting moment I thought we might have a free seat beside us and then you walked up and sat down with your briefcase and your important documents and I had a vision of Kate pouring her water all over your multi-million dollar contracts, or house deeds, or whatever it was you held,” she wrote. “The moment you sat down, Kate started to rub your arm. Your jacket was soft and she liked the feel of it. You smiled at her and she said: ‘Hi, Daddy, that’s my mom.’ Then she had you.”
But Kate tried to engage Kunkel, Mouland wrote.
Kate: (Upon noticing you had an IPad) “Is dis Daddy’s puduter?”
You: “This is my IPad. Would you like to see it?”
Kate: “To me??????” (I know she thought you were offering it to her to keep)
Me: “Look with your eyes, Kate. That is not yours.”
Kate: “Dat’s nice!”
You: (Upon noticing that Kate had an IPad) “I like your computer, too. It has a nice purple case.”
Kate: “Daddy wanna be a bad guy?” (She offered Shredder [a figure of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain] to you and that, my friend, is high praise)
It was not until later that Kunkel learned Kate had autism.
“When Shanell said ‘Kate has autism,’ I was just, ‘OK,'” Kunkel said.
He didn’t know much about it then, but it inspired him to get involved with the Easter Seals, a non-profit that helps raise awareness of autism.
“It’s been such an honor to have someone with the spirit and compassion that Eric has join our board,” Anysa Holder with Easter Seals New Jersey said.
Their reunion happened in New Jersey in time for the Easter Seals Walk With Me 5K at MetLife Stadium this weekend. Both families will be walking together.
Mouland and Kunkel also took some time to share their story with high school students in East Brunswick.
“To teach our kids and our students that it takes just as much energy to be nice to somebody as it does to be mean,” Principal Robert Feldman of Career Development High School told Rincon.
Both are getting lots of kind messages and thanks from strangers now: Eric Kunkel for his understanding, Shanell Mouland, for helping others understand with that heartfelt letter.
“The things I like to hear the most are the people that say they think differently when they travel now,” Mouland said.
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