Hector Andres Zuniga, a 20-year-old man who has autism and is non-verbal, had been going to his local Blockbuster store in Sharyland, Texas since he was 13.
He made the trip to the store at least twice a week to pick up snacks and rent his favorite movies, which typically involve “Barney,” “Rugrats,” Elmo or “Blue’s Clues.”
Most of the staff at Blockbuster watched him grow up. His father, also named Hector, told HuffPost that whenever they passed the store in the car, his son would point to it and utter one the few words he says: “Barney.”
A few months ago, Hector Andres’ mother, Rosa, got some heartbreaking news.
A Blockbuster employee pulled her aside while she and Hector Andres were visiting and told her that the store would be closing. Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010, and only a handful of stores remain open across the U.S.
Rosa immediately called her husband.
“[Hector Andres] is a happy-go-lucky kid,” Hector Sr. said. “He’s all heart, he’s very tender, but like anyone else, he has bad days. And we knew one of those bad days were around the corner when we found out that the Blockbuster was about to close.”
Since the store was such a huge part of Hector Andres’ routine, his parents would have to break the news to him very gently.
While on the phone with her husband, Rosa got an idea. Since the store would be selling all of its inventory before officially closing, why not buy some of those items and recreate Blockbuster at home for Hector Andres?
Hector Sr. loved the idea.
“The employees told us when they’d start selling their stock, and when they did, I was one of the first customers in the store,” he said
The Zunigas began to secretly buy and squirrel away all kinds of things from Blockbuster, including DVDs, signs and even a rack that employees helped Rosa set up and transport to her car. Hector Sr. said Blockbuster employees would also set aside items they knew Hector Andres would like for the Zunigas to buy when they came into the store.
“Those employees really came out to bat for my son,” Hector Sr. said. “They really paid attention and did a hell of a job.”
Then on April 23, closing day finally arrived.
The entire Zuniga family, including Hector Andres’ 19-year-old brother, Javier, went to the store. The family waited until later in the day, when most of the store’s inventory was cleared out, and there were empty walls and racks, before bringing Hector Andres there.
The Zunigas wanted him to fully understand that the store was closing. Hector Sr. said he also wanted his son to have closure.
“He made a beeline to the area where he usually rents movies,” Hector Sr. said. “And there was nothing there. The shelves that usually had his DVDs were already gone.”
Hector Andres got the message, loud and clear.
“He understood, I could see it in his eyes,” Hector Sr. said. “And he almost started having a meltdown.”
But Hector Sr. knew what to do. He grabbed his son’s hands, looked into his eyes and said, “This place is closing, but it’s OK. We have a surprise for you at home.”
Once home, the Zunigas gave Hector Andres a puzzle to play with while he processed what had just happened. While he was busy, Hector Sr. and Javier went into a spare room and set up their at-home Blockbuster store.
About an hour later, they walked Hector Andres to the room with his eyes covered and surprised him.
“It’s hard for my son to express emotions,” Hector Sr. said. “But when he saw the room, his eyes were as big as saucers.”
Hector Andres looked around the room in disbelief, his family explaining the entire time that all of it was for him. Hector Sr. said his son even went up to a few DVDs and touched them “almost like he was checking to see if they were real.”
After Hector Andres had fully taken in the surprise, he thanked his dad in his own way.
“His way of saying ‘I love you,’ is by going up to you and grabbing your earlobe,” Hector Sr. told HuffPost. “So he came up to me and grabbed my ear … it was one of those moments that us parents live for.”
Hector Andres then grabbed three or four DVDs and ran to his room to watch them.
“It was a hit,” Hector Sr. said.
Javier, who dotes on his big brother, was especially touched by the moment. He decided to post a few pictures of the Zunigas’ sweet accomplishment to Twitter. The photos quickly went viral, receiving over 117,000 likes and 29,000 retweets.
Hector Sr. said his family is overwhelmed by the response, but he has a hunch as to why the post became as popular as it did:
“Every once in a while everything just seems to work,” Hector Sr. said. “And this time, it just did.”