As we finish 2016, our thoughts at the BDN turn to the interesting people we met throughout the year. It’s been our privilege to share the snapshots of their lives, whether uplifting, tragic or surreal, with our readers.
Yet we know the story doesn’t end with our telling, and in fact, the story often changes greatly after we’ve told it. This makes “Whatever happened to …” a common refrain not only in our newsroom, but we expect, among the public as well.
That’s why, at the end of this year, we wanted to find out “whatever happened.” For the next few weeks, we’ll be touching base with several Mainers whose stories came to attention during the year. What we found may sadden, delight, or surprise. In all cases, we hope you enjoy them.
– Anthony Ronzio, Editor, BDN
Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to really grasp just how immense the response can be when you’re the subject of something that’s gone viral. You just have to hang on for the ride.
That’s what happened to Bangor’s Hallee Sorenson and her mom, Allyson Seel-Sorenson, who in June were the focus of one of the most heartwarming, globe-spanning viral sensations of 2016.
“You really just cannot prepare for something like this,” said Seel-Sorenson. “It’s changed our lives.”
A photo of Hallee, a young woman with autism, at her 18th birthday party in Bangor in 2015, showing her sitting alone, dejected, with no one at her party, was shared on Facebook by her cousin Rebecca Prefontaine. The photo was accompanied by a note asking people to send Hallee cards and letters wishing her a happy 19th birthday this year.
By the end of the week the image was first posted, it had been shared more than 200,000 times, and the family had received hundreds of cards and presents — a tidal wave that would only increase over the coming weeks. Mail trucks, often packed almost entirely packed with boxes and cards just for Hallee, arrived several times per day, for weeks.
Cards came from all over the world — from all 50 states, and from countries as far away as Russia, Australia, Brazil, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, Poland and Kazakhstan.
“I’ve learned more about geography in the past six months than I did in the entire rest of my life,” said Seel-Sorenson.
Letters, too, from grandmothers and grandfathers sweetly telling stories about their own grandchildren, from entire elementary school classes nationwide, and from fellow families also touched by autism. There was even a letter from President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, and a letter personally written by Vice President Joe Biden.
Autographed photos came from Jon Bon Jovi, actors Jamie Dornan and Kate Beckinsale, illusionist David Copperfield, football star John Elway and UFC President Dana White. The governors of the states of Texas, Montana, West Virginia, Georgia and New Mexico all extended their well wishes. Gifts and offers to attend games came from the Boston Red Sox, the Detroit Red Wings, the Denver Broncos, the Golden State Warriors and even Manchester United in England. Director Michael Bay reached out to offer Hallee and her family an all-expenses-paid visit to the set of the new “Transformers” movie.
In total, Hallee has received more than 250,000 individual pieces of mail, both letters and cards and packages. They keep coming, too, with Christmas cards now arriving daily. Hallee and her mom donated the vast majority of toys and gifts sent to Toys for Tots — a donation that ended up equaling $13,189.
The gifts they did keep were small mementos that carried with them a great deal of personal meaning, such as a handmade quilt from a sewing club in Arkansas, or a gift of $6 for birthday ice cream from an elderly man in California.
“He said, ‘At this time, on this date, you have ice cream, and I’ll have ice cream, and we’ll have it together at the same time,’” said Seel-Sorenson.
There also is the pearl necklace, sent by a woman in India.
“She said that her own mother died when she was Hallee’s age, and that it was a tradition in India to get a pearl necklace from your mother, and that she didn’t have any daughters of her own, so she wanted Hallee to have it,” said Seel-Sorenson. “They’re gorgeous. We keep them in a little velvet bag, in a safe. That’ll be something we’ll keep forever.”
Hallee, who will turn 20 in July 2017, will finish school at Bangor High School next year, after taking a few super senior years. Though she operates at the emotional level of a 6-year-old, Seel-Sorenson said the birthday experience has helped her daughter to understand more about the world.
“I think it’s changed her perception of the size of the world,” said Seel-Sorenson. “She has no grasp on space or time, but with all these things coming in from all over the world, she’s starting to understand that the world continues outside of Bangor. She’s a little more open-minded about strangers. She knows that it doesn’t have to be someone you know to have them care about you. … The world doesn’t have to be such a scary place.”