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Parents, communities work to keep kids’ birthdays special despite social distancing

  • Ashley Ovitt, left, of Enfield, N.H., photographs her son Caden Woods, 4, while stopping by to say happy birthday to Jaina Williams, 5, of White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Cassie and Brad Williams celebrated their daughter's birthday in the Coop Food Store parking lot and had a sign on their car asking motorists to honk for Jaina's birthday. (Valley News -Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not bereprinted or used online without permission. Send requests valley news — Jennifer Hauck

  • Kate Hill, of Thetford, Vt., stands with her son Jay Hill, 10, on the Thetford Hill green for his birthday on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. The family had gone to the library to pick up books for the week when Hill surprised her son with the sign.(Valley News -Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not bereprinted or used online without permission. Send requests valley news — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/15/2020 9:06:40 PM
Modified: 4/15/2020 9:06:31 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Social distancing has been tough for Jaina Williams, as her mother can attest.

“It stinks for kids. She knows. She says, ‘Mom, I hate the new virus. I want to see my friends,’ ” Cassie Williams said.

With Jaina’s fifth birthday approaching, Williams knew she wanted to do something special for her daughter, especially after a long-planned family trip to Disney World was canceled. Finding inspiration from a Facebook post from an Upper Valley mother who held a drive-by birthday party for her child, on Wednesday Williams and Jaina drove to the Co-op Food Store in White River Junction, where they set up a sign asking people to honk their horns as they drove by the busy intersection.

“She was super-excited. Bouncing, jumping around, having a good time,” Williams said of the nearly hour the pair spent there on Wednesday.

One of Jaina’s preschool friends brought her a stuffed unicorn. A Co-op shopper brought her flowers.

“It was good when people were in their cars they just waved and honked at her,” Williams said.

As parents across the Upper Valley contend with the “new normal” of home schooling and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic — and try to explain to their children why they must do both — families are also trying to navigate how to celebrate milestones.

Children’s birthday parties, many of which are traditionally marked by a celebration with friends and family, do not pair well with the stay-at-home orders in place in the Twin States.

On Tuesday, Jay Hill turned 10.

He had planned to celebrate with friends during a game-themed “late-over” where his friends could come over and play until the evening. Social distancing canceled those plans.

“There were things we did that we always do,” said Kate Hill, Jay’s mother. “We had presents. We sang Happy Birthday. We talked to family that was far away that we wouldn’t see anyway so we reached out to them like we always do.”

During the day, Jay was excused from his schoolwork and got extra screen time to play his Nintendo Switch, said Hill, who teaches first and second graders at Thetford Elementary School. Social distancing has been tough for the kids she teaches and her own children, who miss seeing their friends.

“We tend to be a pretty social family with a pretty full calendar. While we’re trying to connect with them remotely, it’s not the same,” Hill said. “For Jay, the cancellation of his baseball season has been especially disappointing too.”

As a surprise for Jay’s birthday, his parents brought him to the green on Thetford Hill.

“In the car we had packed a poster that said, ‘Please honk, I am 10 today.’ We had him stand on the side of the road with a bunch of balloons,” Hill said.

They had informed friends of their plan so that they could drive by and give Jay their well wishes.

“I didn’t know it was happening, so at first I didn’t like it,” Jay said. “Once I learned friends were driving by, I got happier about it.”

First responders throughout the Upper Valley are also adding to children’s birthday fun. In Bethel, the volunteer fire department has started bringing trucks by children’s homes after receiving a request from a community member.

“We did two of them the first day and it was pretty amazing watching the little kids,” said Fire Chief David Aldrighetti. “I think we get more out of it than they do.”

People get in touch with the fire department via Facebook and then work with members to figure out the best time to stop by.

“We try to drive by real slow,” Aldrighetti said. “We run the lights and sirens.”

Then, the firefighters turn around and do the same on the way back. Each visit takes only a few minutes.

“It’s wonderful for the kids. It’s a tough time for them,” Aldrighetti said. “It’s something to break it up for these guys all stuck at home. If it helps these kids through it, it’s what we ought to be doing.”

Emily Parker’s son Zack was the recipient of such a visit from the South Royalton police and fire departments on his fourth birthday on Saturday.

“Our original plans were we were going to rent the academy building here in Royalton and have a big birthday party with family, friends,” she said. “We did a small celebration at our house with just my husband and I and Zack. We decorated the kitchen and living room the night before his birthday so when he woke up everything was decorated with balloons and streamers. We made it all about him. He wanted pancakes for breakfast so that’s what he got.”

Then later in the day, the trucks arrived, lights and sirens blaring, for a drive-by parade.

“He loved it. He’s all into fire trucks, police cars, anything with lights and sirens,” Parker said, adding that the parade lasted for about three minutes. “It was nice because the Royalton Police Department actually gave him a small gift which had some coloring pages, some Matchbox cars, some snacks and a card that they signed. It was very nice, very heartwarming.”

Royalton Police Chief Loretta Stalnaker sees the drive-by parties as part of serving the town.

“I think it’s really important. They need to know that they’re part of the community too, and we want to make something special for them,” she said, adding that she knows it doesn’t make up for not having a birthday party. “It makes them feel special.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

Valley News

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