By Cheryl Conway
Celebrating his birthday was one of Ryan McConnell’s favorite things, even more exciting than Christmas, says his mom.
So to honor her son, Karen McConnell of Budd Lake holds a birthday party for him every year on his birthday. This year’s party was held Fri., Dec. 16, at Mt. Playmore at Turkey Brook Park.
This year’s birthday theme was a balloon watch. About 35 birthday guests made up of family, friends, former classmates and teachers attended and wrote messages on about 50 helium balloons and sent them into the sky.
“Ryan always loved balloons,” says McConnell. “Ryan loved his birthday so much, he loved it more than Christmas. It was the one day he loved every year. He had a countdown everyday starting in October. It was just a happy day in our household. Even his friends ask ‘What are we doing for Ryan’s birthday?’ I couldn’t even think of Christmas until his birthday passed.”
McConnell would go all out and book his parties at all of the great party places like movie theaters, jumping places and bounce houses.
His birthday is a “very happy day, but very sad day,” explains McConnell. Ryan would have been 13 years old last month but he died four years ago from Norovirus, she says.
Ryan got the stomach flu in March 2013 which turned into Norovirus, “it’s like a child having a heart attack,” she describes the “very horrific day in the emergency room.
McConnell had gotten a letter sent home from school warning her that the stomach flu was going around right before spring break.
“Ryan was saying ‘my belly hurt.’ He was starting to not eat too well.” He had “the stomach flu forming but we didn’t know it,” she describes. “I went to wake him up for school and he wasn’t waking up,” she says. Ryan was medevaced to Goryed Children’s Center in Morristown. He died March 18 at the age of nine.
As tragic as it was, McConnell has found ways to honor her son’s memory. She bought Christmas presents for four little boys this past holiday though an adopt a child program at her church.
“It helps me saying ‘the stuff is from Ryan.’ I always taught him to give.”
She also donates to Autism as Ryan had high functioning autism.
“He was always very happy and laughing,” says McConnell. He was a “very happy little boy, was loved by everyone in town.”
Oct. 9, 2016 was the third time she participated in the Autism Speaks Walk. McConnell, who serves on the State Walk Committee for Autism Speaks helps to plan walks throughout the state. She also forms a team made up of his friends, teachers, classmates and family, and allocates proceeds to Autism Speaks. This year her team-Rainbows Remembering Ryan- raised $3,000; she has raised $7,000 since participating.
McConnell donated money from Ryan’s funeral to Mt. Playmore.
“He loved Turkey Brook Park,” she says. Mt. Olive Twp. dedicated part of the slide area to Ryan, the location where McConnell hosts the balloon launch every year. “Forever laughing Ryan McConnell,” is engraved in the area designated in his memory.
“We froze,” this year, at the park says McConnell, but that did not spoil Ryan’s gathering of loved ones. Pastor Chris Scrivens of the Community Presbyterian Church of Chester joined in. Ryan’s former classmates from Sandshore Elementary School and Lake Drive School in Mountain Lakes, wrote poems and letters and read them aloud.
After the balloons got released, the group continued the party at Frank’s Pizzeria in Flanders. With the presents received, McConnell usually donates to Toys for Tots.
This year, she decided to contribute to the New View Media Group toy/clothing drive. She gave 10 toys, which included arts and crafts and board games; and gave the remainder to the Toys for Tots collection at the local fire station.
“I liked helping the town out this year,” says McConnell, who serves on four committees in town. “Toys for Tots is so large; it’s a big organization. I don’t know where my Ryan’s toys were going when it leaves the train. It felt nicer giving it to them [New View Media Group]; keeping it closer to home.
“It made me feel nice,” says McConnell, about giving to kids locally in a town that has been so supportive through her tragic loss. “I can’t thank Mt. Olive enough. Mayor, council, police have been phenomenal with keeping my son’s memory alive. He grew up here, he loved it. It will always be his home in his heart and my heart.