Redefining Celebration: Wilton Birthday Parades Spread Joy at a Distance

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, people around the world have been diligently working to redefine work, daily outings, and personal interactions. In Wilton, our fellow residents are going one step further:  they’re redefining celebration.

Erin Bronner never imagined she would be home for her 21st birthday. In fact, she was supposed to be in Paris studying abroad, celebrating with friends. But because of the Facebook group “Wilton Birthday Parades,” there was nowhere else she’d have rather been than at home.

“I wanted to be able to also experience the side of Wilton that places like New York and Paris don’t have to offer, which is people who you don’t even know coming up to you and wishing you a happy birthday and gathering like this, and working in such a small town kind of way to help each other out,” Bronner said. “That’s not something that you get in the big city, I wanted that coming back.”

Almost twenty-five cars, honking and adorned in birthday banners and decorations passed by Bronner’s house the day of her birthday. Never did honking sound so sweet as Bronner watched while SUVs bedecked in streamers drove past. Friendly faces popped out of the sunroof to shout her name, even some faces she didn’t recognize. And to Bronner’s great surprise, several Wilton Police cruisers and Wilton Fire Trucks rolled by her house, honking and sirens ablaze, to let Bronner know she was loved and should feel special.

“It’s a great way to really turn this situation that we’re all dealing with [and] get something positive out of it. And I think that it’s so great to see that it’s so uplifting…it just creates a positive atmosphere for everybody,” Bronner said of the birthday parades sweeping through the town.

Adding Back Personal Connection

On April 9, Vanessa Elias started the private Facebook page “Wilton Birthday Parades” as a central spot for people to post and find out about other birthday drive-bys. Every day, birthday parades for people from the ages of 2 to 100 are posted on the page, with over 260 members waiting to accept the invitation.

Elias started this group after hosting a birthday parade for her daughter Mia’s sweet 16 and seeing how thoughtful people were.

“We looked to the left and there was this whole queue of cars, waiting with kids hanging out of the sunroof…It was really emotional to see that and it was really wonderful. We were all overwhelmed,” Elias said. “It made her feel loved and made her birthday really special and memorable.”

Since its start, the group has put on dozens of birthday parades. Elias said that there are usually two to three birthday parades held every day for both kids and adults, many of them a surprise. Dozens of cars will gather at the specified 15-minute time window and celebrate the person from a safe distance, spreading joy to both participants and the birthday person spotlighted.

Elias said that privacy, as well as social distancing rules, are extremely important to the group. If people do not wish to share their address, they can ask people to private message them for it if they plan to show up, and people are only accepted into the group if they are from Wilton. Additionally, Elias strongly encourages people to abide by social distancing and most people stay in their cars for the entire parade.

“[Today] we’re just not getting a lot of face-to-face time with people. So to have that opportunity at an organized safe distance is really nice,” Elias said.

Like Elias, the Wilton Police Department and Wilton Fire Department wanted to help spread the joy with birthday parades as well, said Lt. David Hartman. 

“At the Wilton Police Department we’ve been very big into being tied into the community and being involved with the community. With this whole COVID-19 ‘Everybody stay home’ situation, we really haven’t had the ability to connect with the public like we typically do.”

Though emergency situations take priority, Hartman said that first responders have tried to go to every parade they can. He said that as of Tuesday, April 22 they have 27 parades on the schedule from when they started to May 2, and they are always willing to add more.

“Most of us have kids so we realize the impact that a birthday has on the kids and how important it is,” Hartman said. “So to have something special like this, which we don’t do all the time…to see the police cars and fire trucks come down the road, knowing that they’re there to support you, I think is really important. And I think it’s made a big difference in kids’ lives.”

Hartman is personally invested in supporting the community because he grew up in Wilton as well. He added that interacting with the community is what “all [the officers] miss.”

“It’s even more of an interest in what goes on because this is my hometown. But the whole job of police work is about the relationship we have with the community and doing the best we can to make sure that everybody gets through these tough times,” he said. “[Part] of that is reaching out and helping the community realize that we’re partners in this together.”

He said that people can email him with the name and age of the birthday person, and the address, date, and times that work for the parade, and he’s happy to arrange a drive-by.

For some families, this participation in activities is routine. For Kara Berghaus, she and her family not only attend birthday parades on a daily basis, but do so in style.

“We took all the streamers and the balloons that we had leftover and we put them on..our SUV and so every time we hear about a birthday, we try to go and drive by,” Berghaus said. “We play the Beatles song and we blast [it] out the window. We have a megaphone so the kids get a kick out of popping out of the sunroof and in the megaphone singing happy birthday.”

“Honestly, it’s been the one thing that’s really saved our spirits,” Berghaus added.

Berghaus, who works in mental health advocacy at the schools, said that this ‘new routine’ her family has adopted has helped them stay connected in a time where connection is more important than ever.

“For our family, and for my kids in particular… I just know with my mental health background, trying to keep them positive and keep them connected and keep them feeling not isolated from their friends and the community is a really important piece of going through something very traumatic like this,” Berghaus said. “It’s a good way to celebrate the good.”

Birthday Joy–For All Ages

One of the most memorable birthday celebration moments was this past Tuesday afternoon, when an entire parade of cars, police cruisers, fire trucks, and an ambulance honked and cheered birthday wishes to Wilton resident Adrian Offinger for his 100th birthday. Offinger’s son, Don, is a member of the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and the police, firefighters, and EMS community came to celebrate with Adrian in full force.

Berghaus said the parade was organized by Julianna Scheurkogel, a Wilton resident who is an ER Nurse at Norwalk Hospital.

“To celebrate this gentleman turning 100 years old…was just probably the best day we’ve had six weeks,” Berghaus said. “He was out there waiting for everybody and he just looked completely overjoyed. Seeing the community come together, having that connection, maintaining that connection, and knowing that our town really is a treasure, it truly, truly is.”

Jennifer Acera-Markey threw a surprise birthday parade for her daughter, Samantha, and said it was “a welcome reprieve for a lot of us to see faces and smile and laugh about something.”

“It made me smile probably as much as it made her smile to see her happy, to see some friends who actually could come by and see some faces and have a little social interaction that way,” Acera-Markey said. “It was better than any present I think she could have been given at that point.”

Mary Elisabeth Kelley shared in an email to GMW that her daughter Magnolia‘s 7th birthday was made so much more special by the birthday parade.

“As you can imagine, many kids are missing their friends, our daughter being one of them, was worried she wouldn’t get to celebrate her big day with anyone,” Kelley wrote. “In swooped friends and neighbors to save the day. Birthday music blaring, they showed up with balloons, signs, the whole nine yards. As parents, seeing Maggie overwhelmed with joy left us in happy tears.”

Jamie Myers wrote to GMW that her son Craig O’Neill‘s birthday was made extra special by a surprise all his family was in on. The parade, which was arranged by another mom, made the day so much more special, Myers wrote.

“It was an act of kindness,” Myers wrote. “Craig said it was the best birthday… just amazing and was a happy 15 minutes for a family of six.”

No matter the role played in the birthday parades, participants agree that it is an emotional, touching, and purposeful way to add joy to this bleak quarantine period. For kids, in particular, Hartman and Berghaus most emphasized the importance of giving them this joy in this bleak time.

“I’m so unbelievably proud of the children in our community and how resilient they have been being thrown into the situation,” Berghaus said. “They really truly have adapted and you know it’s not easy for them to do this…but I think that they’re doing really the best that they can. If we can make their days brighter with birthdays and parades, then why not?”

To get involved in parades, request to join the Wilton Birthday Parades Facebook Group. Berghaus said participating in them has given her family “purpose” in this difficult time. Acerra-Markey agreed, saying she encourages everyone who can to get involved.

“I would tell everybody if they’re looking for something to do see if there’s a parade on the schedule for that day,” Acerra-Markey said. “It just puts a smile on your face even if it’s not someone you’re super friendly with or someone you even know. The kids are just waving and honking and it’s lovely.”