Christopher Carmen Jr. is like any 5-year-old boy.
He wears green light-up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sandals and his cheeks get flushed when he runs on the playground at All Person's Rotary Park.
His mother, Trisha Duffy of Valrico, wipes mud off his forehead as his deep blue eyes search for a new adventure.
A wet cough is what separates him from other children at his school. It's a symptom of his cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that causes mucus buildup in his lungs and pancreas that make it hard for him to breathe.
The disease has caused him to be hospitalized and miss more than 65 days of kindergarten last year, his mother said. That has made it hard for him to make friends and an easy target for bullying at Nelson Elementary School.
"As a mom, that just breaks your heart because there's nothing I can do," says Duffy, a stay-at-home mother. "No child should be made fun of."
With Christopher turning 6 on Aug. 7, his 29-year-old mom couldn't stand the thought of her oldest son having a birthday with no friends. So a few weeks ago, she took to a Facebook group and asked other moms with children battling CF to write birthday cards to her son. She wanted to show Christopher that he was not alone and he had friends.
"The response I got in two hours was amazing," she said. "I couldn't keep up."
Within days her post went viral and other Facebook groups in Tampa were sending her son cards. The charity arm of one group, the Chive, is organizing a birthday bash.
"Here at Chive Tampa, one of our goals is to make everyone feel like they are part of this world," said Chive member Colleen Hennessy, who is part of the effort.
Sharks are Christopher's favorite animal, so that will be the party's theme. It will be held on the Pop Warner football and cheerleading field at 707 S Miller Road. The Cruz Brothers band and disc jockey Jeff Brockman will provide music, and there will be food, costumed superheroes, pinatas, water guns and temporary shark tattoos, Hennessy said.
"This has touched so many people because this could be their child," she said. "It's great how these kind of things bring people together."
Christopher, who's missing his front two baby teeth, can't stop smiling. He knows he'll get to share a birthday with friends. He said he's excited to talk to them about sharks.
"I like great white, hammerhead and Megalodon sharks," he said. One day he hopes to work at an aquarium.
His mother and father, Chris Carmen, are happy for Christopher. The past year was tough on the family.
Because of his long stay in Tampa General Hospital, Christopher missed so much school that he'll have to repeat kindergarten this fall.
And even without having to pay $30,000 a month for Christopher's medicine thanks to insurance, the family of five is living on one income — Christopher's father works at the Amazon warehouse in Ruskin. The family now lives with Duffy's mother, but hopes to find a home they can afford that is big enough for all of them.
For now, she's taking it day-by-day and looking forward to showing her son that he is not alone in his battle.
"I really love the fact that we have this close community," she said. "There's still love out there, with all the hate out there in the world."
Contact Ariana Figueroa at [email protected] or (813) 226-3350. Follow @ArianaLFigueroa.