As soon as we’re born, we’re building. We build up resistances to germs, build our skills, and build our relationships. We also pile emotional bricks in response to the negative influences of the world: building walls around us, isolating ourselves from harm.
For 10-year-old Zechariah Himsl, the world can be a confusing place, despite the skills he’s garnered in his decade here. Zech – pronounced ‘Zack’ – was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old; socializing is difficult for him, his mom Sandy Himsl said, and he can be overwhelmed by his feelings.
And when he’s overcome, Zech falls back on the safety of building, whether it’s creating a town or a hammer with Legos or K’Nex toys, or starting and nurturing a civilization in video games like Minecraft.
His parents, Sandy and Nick Himsl, support Zech’s affinities for these games and toys, and also appreciate his caring, protective attitude as an older brother to his three younger sisters.
But being the parents of a child with autism also carries added emotional responsibility, Sandy said, because they feel all the emotions that seem to pass Zech by; she’s had her heart broken while overhearing other kids make fun of her son, and she’s felt the tight, sharp pain that comes with no one showing up to her son’s birthday party – the day when a kid is supposed to feel unique and celebrated – as if it were her own.
“We have unfortunately not had the best of luck with other people coming to his parties when we’ve invited them,” Sandy said last week in her south Kalispell living room.
Last year, Zech’s Aug. 18 birthday party was well attended by his family members, who made it a fun day full of water fights and frivolity, but none of his peers came. And when Nick lost his job before finding another, the family had to tighten its financial belt, and the specter of another potentially disappointing birthday started to weigh on the Himsls.
“I was kind of worried about what his birthday would be like this year,” she said.
With that in mind, Sandy took to Facebook on June 1, hoping to find 50 people to send birthday cards and a single Lego piece to Zech for his August birthday.
The goal, according to Zech, is to build a creation out of all the random pieces he receives, and then take a picture of said creation and send it to Lego Magazine, to which he subscribes and reads religiously.
Fifty cards in two months seemed doable, Sandy said, but she had no idea. By the evening of June 1, her post had been shared more than 700 times. By June 5, it had been shared nearly 14,000 times, with people all over the country promising to send Lego pieces.
Even the Lego headquarters caught wind of the idea, and emailed Sandy, letting her know that Lego employees and creators would be sending cards and a bag of random pieces.
“I’ve been crying for the last two days,” Sandy said on June 4. “I can’t wrap my brain around it; getting that much love and support for your child is all any parent can ever hope for.”
Having experienced problems with bullying at school, Zech was homeschooled this last year, isolating him even further from his peers. But with the popularity of the Lego birthday request, parents from around the valley have gotten in touch with the Himsls about play dates.
Another local group, Voices for Forrest – started after the death of two-year-old Evergreen boy Forrest Groshelle – also reached out, saying they would like to organize an outdoor birthday party for Zech.
Cindy Juntunen Rice, who runs Voices for Forrest, said she wanted to help out a little boy who has felt alone and bullied, and since Zech feels the best when he’s outside, she wanted to host a Lego-themed party for him in a local park.
The attention has nearly overwhelmed the Himsls, who simply wanted to make their son’s day a special one.
“I’m just floored at how much response we’ve gotten,” Nick Himsl said. “And it’s not just people in our community, it’s everywhere.”
Now faced with the prospect of receiving hundreds of Lego pieces for his birthday – a much larger canvas on which to build his Lego Magazine creation – Zech is excited. When asked what he might make with all those pieces, his body went still, he gazed off, and cracked a wide grin.
“I’m not too sure yet,” he said.
As with some of his other favorite past-times, like fishing or hiking, creating with Legos takes precision and patience, giving him a calm space. Sandy and Nick hope to have him back in school next year for fifth grade, and hope this experience will help Zech find his place.
Until then, they’ll continue to help their son build the best life he can.
“I feel very proud,” Zech said when considering the response his mom’s post received on Facebook.
Looking at her son sitting across the living room, his smile radiating, Sandy’s eyes started tearing up again.
“I feel very proud of you,” she said.
For more information on Zech’s upcoming birthday party, check the Voices for Forrest Facebook page. To contribute a card and a Lego piece, send the package to 2248 Pintail Court, Kalispell, Montana, 59901.