Mason McMilin didn’t quite understand why his mom, Kim McMilin, sent him to the front yard with a foam finger taped to a long wooden dowel on his birthday, April 10.
A steady stream of about 30 cars drove past Mason, with friends, family and church members waving signs and yelling birthday wishes.
“He told me it was the best birthday he’s ever had,” McMilin said.
In mid-March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a series of mandates enforcing social distancing protocols. The mandates restricted gatherings of anyone outside of the immediate household. No gatherings, no birthday parties.
Alaskans have had to get creative with how they celebrate.
On the morning of his birthday, McMilin and Mason made a birthday cake and had a small family celebration. When Kim McMilin explained to Mason they couldn’t have a party to celebrate his eighth birthday, she said he understood. Then, the foam finger came out and Mason was sent outside, where McMilin said he was able to do “no-touch” high-fives with his friends and family. After the drive-by birthday, McMilin collected all of the homemade signs friends and family made for Mason, and put them up on his wall.
“It goes to show that we live in the best place,” McMilin said. “Not to say people in the Lower 48 couldn’t pull off what we did, but it was pretty magical and better than any gift we could have given him.”
McMilin got the idea of a drive-by birthday party from someone she knew who did a similar thing. She decided to call local family and friends and ask if they would drive by, honk “and maybe wave” to Mason on the day of his birthday. She would let it be a surprise for her son, to help make his birthday, which fell in the middle of a global pandemic, a little more special.
“You don’t realize how much love and support you have until you ask people for help,” McMilin said. “People go above and beyond.”
Heather Stockton said her daughter, Katie, was “devastated” she wouldn’t be able to have a Sweet 16 birthday party. Katie’s mom and friends worked to spread the word about a surprise birthday parade for her 16th birthday, April 2. Stockton said she got Katie out of the house and drove her to the end of the road, where she parked and had Katie bundle up in the back of the car so she could see friends and family drive by to wish her happy birthday.
Stockton said Katie was surprised to see friends and family drive by honking, blaring music, holding signs and balloons, wearing “goofy hats,” throwing candy and launching confetti cannons.
“I’m so thankful everyone is willing to reach out to people,” Stockton.
Some fire departments on the Kenai Peninsula have also offered to help. Both the Kenai and Nikiski fire departments have been taking time to visit kids in their communities on their birthdays, with sirens blaring and lights flashing.
At the Nikiski Fire Department, Harrison Deveer said firefighters are making time for kids who have birthdays in the month of April. They have visited about 10 children already, with about 10 more birthdays already scheduled. Deveer said the department brings some small presents, like a Frisbee and stuffed animal dalmatian named Sparky.
“Everyone is so lonely at this time and birthday parties have been canceled, we figured this was something we could to bring cheer to the community,” Deveer said.
James Arness in Nikiski, heard about what the fire department was doing to help make birthdays special from a number of local friends. He said the department came out to help wish his daughter a happy sixth birthday two weeks ago. He said this year’s birthday was “unlike any year” and “a lot more quiet.” It was also raining, Arness said, and his kids all shuffled outside and didn’t know what was happening. He said the department came in their truck, with the sirens blaring.
“(My daughter) was elated,” Arness said. “My older son was incredibly jealous.”
Arness said the visit from the Nikiski Fire Department helped “break up the monotony” of the quarantined life many Alaskans are experiencing.
The Kenai Fire Department has offered a similar service to the families living within the city of Kenai. Fire Chief Tony Prior said they got the idea from the Chugiak Fire Department north of Anchorage. Prior said the department visits families with balloons and the fire department’s dalmatian dog mascot, who is a member of the department dressed up in the Sparky costume.
“We thought, man, what a great idea for kids in the era of social distancing,” Prior said. “We felt it was something we could do for kids who can’t have birthday parties.”
Prior said the department has seen “quite the response.” They have visited more than a dozen children already, with 20 or more on the waiting list for the rest of April. Prior asked parents to be patient with the department, and noted that they are still responding to emergencies.
The Nikiski Fire Department and the Kenai Fire Department have information on their Facebook pages for parents who want to arrange a birthday visit from the department. Each department is confined to their community, so only families living within the city of Kenai or the boundaries of the Nikiski Fire Service Area are eligible for visits from the department.