Eleven-year-old Burke Manuel loves trains—really loves them. So much so, in fact, that last year his parents took him to visit nearby Pinehurst Wine Shoppe’s Christmas train display nearly every day.
Soon, the young rail buff caught the attention of the shop’s owners, Gordy McNamara and Bob Schindler.
“He just had the biggest smile in the world,” says McNamara. “When he was watching the train, he was as content as could be.”
Needless to say, Burke—who has autism—was very unhappy when the holidays ended, knowing his beloved track was going to come down. McNamara and his partner, however, weren’t keen to disappoint their display’s biggest fan.
“We ended up leaving it up deep into the winter,” McNamara says. (Burke’s mother, Lisa Manuel, estimated even longer, saying she remembered it to be about April.) Even so, the track eventually had to come down—”a sad day for Burke,” according to the shop’s owners.
As the year went on, McNamara and Schindler found that they missed their frequent visitor and the happiness he brought—and not only that, they missed the train.
McNamara, an enthusiast himself, had long been interested in a suspended train system (the type that’s hung from the ceiling). And when he acquired one this summer by happenstance, he knew of one person who would appreciate it just as much as he did.
One hundred man hours later, the train was permanently installed in Pinehurst. Called “The Burke Express,” the elevated track features a sign made especially for Burke and a kid-level switch so he can turn the train on and off.
“Even though the train was up by November 1, I still hadn’t spoken to [the Manuel family],” McNamara says. “But one day, I ran into Burke’s mother and said ‘Lisa, I want to show you something.”
“They surprised all of us with it,” says Manuel. “It was so sweet and kind. Gordy and Bob just went above and beyond for Burke. He was so excited to see it, to see his name up there and have his own little switch.”
The Pinehurst pair decided to take the gesture one step further. The train became both a fundraising opportunity, with people “sponsoring” cars and making donations in Burke’s name, and a way of raising awareness of autism. So far, the Shoppe has raised about $900 for Cockeysville-based Pathfinders for Autism, an organization that gathers resources and holds free events for children with autism. (A neighbor who heard of Pinehurst’s kindness, Jennifer Ciattei, adds that she and many members of her community are patronizing the store especially due to McNamara and Schindler’s kindness.)
As for Burke? He loves his locomotive, stopping in at least a few times every week to see it.
“He never gets tired of it,” Manuel says with a laugh.
“He always has the biggest grin,” says McNamara. “It’s infectious. It really makes us feel good to be able to make him happy.”
“I don’t even know how to describe how thankful I am,” adds Manuel. “No one has ever done something so wonderful for our family.”