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Single mom Leah Paske picked her son Bo's middle school, Montford Middle School in Tallahassee, Florida, specifically because she knew he would be able to go there with his entire elementary school class. Because Bo, 11, was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old, it was particularly important to her that he be able to stay with the friends he made when he was young.
But although Bo does have a lot of friends at Montford who are "super protective of him and take care of him," Paske told TODAY Parents that for some reason, he only chooses to sit with friends at lunch about fifty percent of the time. The rest of the time, he sits alone.
But when the Florida State University football team visited Montford this week, wide receiver Travis Rudolph saw Bo sitting alone in the cafeteria and decided to sit with him for lunch. FSU regularly sends members from all the athletic teams to local schools as part of a community outreach program.
Paske's friend, Leon County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Halligan, took a picture of the two of them and sent it to Paske, who works for the Leon County Sheriff's office. "Overwhelmed with emotion," Paske posted the photo to her personal Facebook page. The photo has since been shared 10K times and garnered national media attention.
"Now that I have a child starting middle school, I have feelings of anxiety for him, and they can be overwhelming if I let them," she wrote. "Sometimes I'm grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him. He doesn't seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn't seem to notice that he doesn't get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn't seem to mind if he eats lunch alone."
Paske said one of her daily questions for Bo, a "super sweet child, who always has a smile and hug for everyone he meets," is if he ate lunch with anyone, and sometimes she feels sad for him when he eats alone. So when Deputy Halligan sent her the picture of Bo with Rudolph and told her that Rudolph was an FSU football player, "I had tears streaming down my face," Paske wrote. "I'm not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I'm happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn't have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes."
When Paske picked Bo up from school, she said her son ran up to her with his autographed lunchbox and said, "Mom, I'm famous!" "He was super psyched and said it was awesome," she said.
Paske said she hopes this story can show both parents and kids that "if you see somebody alone, all it takes is a few kind words or a kind gesture to make their day. A hug or a smile can impact people in a way that you can't even imagine."
Bo's story, she said, is about kindness and love, and "a little bit about autism." "Somebody may not act the same as you," she said, "But that doesn't mean they don't have the same heart and the same spirit."
Rudolph received something for his act of kindness, too: The Paskes will be fans for life, she said.