SANTA ROSA (KPIX) — Cardinal Newman High School teacher and coach Monica Mertle surprised Ben Thornton at his home with a handful of gifts. He is a senior at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa.
“You’re awesome,” he exclaimed. “Thank you so much.”
“I’m so excited for you,” she replied.
“We’ve lost so much in these last couple months — graduation, prom, senior trip,” Thornton said. “It’s special to me to receive a gift like this from a complete stranger that I never knew before.”
Thornton is heading to the University of Arizona where he’ll join the school’s wheelchair basketball team on an athletic scholarship. Thornton suffered a spinal cord injury from a blood clot while he was on life support years ago. Now, Coach Mertle is honoring his perseverance with gifts that include the jersey of Ben’s hero, Arizona Wildcats alumnus and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Ben has accomplished,” Mertle said. “It’s years of hard work, years of dedication, years of sacrifice.”
Mertle learned about Thornton through a Facebook page: “Adopt a Sonoma County High School Senior.”
The group has seen 800 seniors receive graduation gifts. Joanne Crowley started the project a month ago with her own daughter, a high school senior, in mind.
“She’s been so sad lately and just to see her and all her friends, they can’t see each other,” Crowley said with tears in her eyes. “And they have been through so much. To see them have a smile makes me do this — it’s great.”
Parents or students post information about their Sonoma County high school graduate to the Facebook page. Then community members pick whom to “adopt” as a gift recipient.
Emily Phan delivered a basket to her former 6th grade classmate Joseph Galligan.
“His mom in the post was talking about how high school hasn’t been super easy, which is what a lot of kids are going through. So I thought a little gift would help him feel a little better,” Phan explained.
Phan bought Galligan a laundry basket full of some of his favorite things like Star Wars photos and trail mix.
“I felt pretty happy,” Galligan said. “Like people actually knew, still remembered, that I was still out in the world.
Phan smiled, “it made me happy knowing he would be happy receiving it.”
And Phan, who’s also a graduating senior, received her own gift: an avocado pinata, from a friend’s sister, filled with snacks, pens, notebooks and other supplies.
“It was super cute and creative,” Phan said.
With more than 3,100 members, the “Adopt a Sonoma County High School Senior” Facebook page is growing every week, adding new photos and notes of thanks for creative acts of kindness.
“You gotta see that they’re strengthening us as a community,” Thornton said.