After being bullied at school for being different, William Morales was starting to lose hope that he would ever make friends. But his community rallied together for his 13th birthday to show William that even though he felt lonely, he wasn’t going to be alone again.
Hundreds of people in Port St. Lucie, Florida, attended William’s 13th birthday on August 20 at Superplay USA, a family amusement center filled with activities such as bowling, laser tag, and mini-golf. The event was organized by CrowdFunnit, a nonprofit that puts together events for bullied or alienated youth to help build their confidence and self-esteem. William, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, has felt exactly that during the past few years.
“He’s always been different and, unfortunately, he’s been bullied for many years now and it’s always been a struggle,” William’s mother, Tricia Morales, tells PEOPLE. “The last birthday party we had for him was either in kindergarten or first grade, and no one showed up.”
Since that party, the Morales family has only thrown private family gatherings to celebrate William’s birthday. Which each passing year, William grew more withdrawn from others, and combined with the teasing he experienced at school, he soon asked his mother not to take him anymore. Tricia wasn’t ready to give in just yet.
“I told him that we can’t let the bullies win,” she says.
But a group of kind people would soon be hard at work to assure that things would start swinging William’s way.
Early this summer, CrowdFunnit contacted Tricia and asked her if she would like them to organize a birthday party for William. Though she was up for it, William was nervous about putting himself in another situation where people wouldn’t show up.
“I assured him everything would be okay,” Tricia says. “But in the beginning, I didn’t know if it was going to be. In my heart, I hoped it would, and it turned out to be something I never could have imagined in my lifetime.”
When Tricia and William pulled up to CrowdFunnit’s party on August 20, more than 400 people had already filled the area. Crowdfunnit used the local news and social media to help spread the word about the event. Police officers, firefighters and cosplayers dressed as superheroes all showed up to wish William a happy birthday. It was the most heartwarming thing Tricia has ever seen, she says.
“A week before, William was begging me to not make him go to school,” Tricia says. “The following week after the party when I picked him up after school, he had a smile on his face—he told me he had a good day and he met nice people.”
The experience, Tricia says, was two-fold: it allowed others to celebrate a boy who has had a miserable time as of late, and it helped to raise awareness for autism and bullying in schools.
According to StopBullying.gov, 28 percent of U.S. students in grades 6 to 12 experienced bullying, and 70 percent of young people say they have been a witness to bullying. Tricia says she wants parents to take initiative and educate their children about the dangers of bullying, and to be accepting of those who are different, such as those with autism. “It can get so lonely,” she says, “and nobody should feel that way.”
Today, at least, Tricia and William can bask in the joy of the moment and what a brighter future might bring.
“I’ve been crying a lot because my son is happy,” Tricia says. “That’s all you want for any of your children.”