As Friday, April 17, approached, I found myself, like many other area parents, struggling to brainstorm ideas to make my son’s birthday special. Quarantine poses many obstacles to traditional birthday parties. Bowling with friends, which he requested months ago, was impossible, as was any type of in-person celebration with family, classmates, or teammates. As a soon-to-be 9-year-old, Bronson was more understanding of our current climate and social limitations than perhaps a younger child – like his sister -would be, but he was no less prone to disappointment. After all, in our house birthdays are a big deal!
With the help of our family members, friends, social media, and technology, I was able to compile a four-minute video of Bronson’s relatives, coaches, and teammates passing a baseball to him. This was by far his favorite gift and one he will treasure forever. “I felt happy because I got to see my friends,” Bronson said. “They are loyal to me, and I am to them, too, but it surprised me to see that they still celebrated my birthday even though we are home and away from each other.”
Bronson’s birthday also included a parking lot meet-up for cake in cars with his grandparents as well as a front-yard decoration from Sign Gypsies of the Mid-Ohio Valley.
Sherry McPherson, a nurse for more than 42 years who presently works at WVU Medicine Camden-Clark Medical Center in the behavioral health unit, bought into the Sign Gypsies franchise in April 2019 as a retirement plan. “I have loved my job as a nurse, but I wanted to retire at the end of this year, and a friend of mine has a Sign Gypsies’ franchise in Pittsburgh.
“She and I talked a lot about it, and I thought it sounded like fun, similar to crafting and scrapbooking. Until April, the biggest month I have had was January. My daughter-in-law and I were putting up signs in freezing weather!”
In late March, McPherson placed signs at three local hospitals, Camden-Clark Medical Center, Marietta Memorial Hospital, and Selby General Hospital, to honor heroic healthcare workers. A newspaper article featuring those, coupled with families and friends seeking creative ways to celebrate their loved ones, caused demand for the Sign Gypsies’ services to explode.
“If it weren’t for my son, Seth Amos, a pipefitter, and my daughter-in-law, Stacey Amos, who also is a nurse, being out of work due to our present circumstances, I don’t know what I would’ve done!” McPherson said. “Stacey also is on the contract I signed with Sign Gypsies, so if something happens to me, she automatically can take over. I call her my ‘partner in signs’!
“In March, we had 21 orders, and so far, for April, we’ve had approximately 120! Unfortunately, I’ve had to turn people away. I see this as God’s blessing in that we have been so busy and have so much work that it gave my son and daughter-in-law income when they both were out of work. It also boosted my business, so while we have been extremely busy, I feel very grateful.”
While April is full, sign orders are being accepted for future months, and McPherson also hopes to help families honor local graduates. Orders can be placed online, or those interested can find Sign Gypsies of the Mid-Ohio Valley on Facebook or via email at email@example.com.
Lainey Pfeifer, who celebrated her eighth birthday April 10, also awakened to a sign from the Sign Gypsies. And like several other local children marking birthdays during quarantine, her parents organized a parade featuring family and friends to surprise the birthday girl while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
“All Lainey wanted for her eighth birthday was to go to Chuck E. Cheese with her family and have a sleepover with her friends, and as the lockdown became inevitable, she was very upset these things weren’t going to occur,” Janie Pfeifer, Lainey’s mom, said. “We had to get creative! We planned a scavenger hunt for her to find presents, she had a special shirt made that said ‘Happy Quarantined Birthday to Me,’ we ordered takeout and ate homemade cake, and family came from as far as an hour away to participate in the drive-by parade.
“She was so excited to see everyone! She received cards, hand-drawn birthday pictures, money, gifts, balloons, and even donuts. Lainey really wanted her grandparents to be part of the day; she was sad they couldn’t be there when she was blowing out her candles, so she invited them to come watch from their car, and we served cake from the garage.”
Lainey’s 4-year-old sister, Livie, also celebrated her birthday toward the beginning of quarantine, March 24, and family members were involved at a distance and via technology then, too. Both girls said a favorite was baking and decorating the homemade cake. “It was very different than my other birthdays,” Lainey said. “But, it was also very fun. I loved my parade because it surprised me. It was great that everybody came and said happy birthday and held cards and signs from their cars. I was glad I still got to see my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my friends on my birthday!”
Janie said these will definitely be birthdays to remember. “It was very touching seeing everyone come ‘together’ to celebrate! It has been very difficult not spending time with family and friends, so it was great getting everyone together, even if from a distance. Having grandparents be a part of the day was very important to me and to the birthday girl!”
Jake Jackson’s family and friends also celebrated his April 4 birthday with a parade he won’t soon forget. “Typically, we allow our kids to choose what they want to do for their birthday parties,” Jake’s dad, Chris Jackson, said. “The last couple years, Jake liked to celebrate his birthday at a Pittsburgh Pirates’ game with a smaller family party at the house. Of course, those options weren’t possible this year with the virus.
“Jake’s grandmother promoted the idea of a surprise birthday parade on her Facebook page to gather family and friends, and we thought it was a great idea. Jake was surprised, and he didn’t realize it was for him until people started handing him birthdays cards.”
As family and friends lined up for the parade, they saw a Parkersburg police officer, who then called the Parkersburg Fire Department, and they joined the parade as well, with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
“Because of the fire truck and the police car, Jake thought it was a funeral procession at first,” his dad laughed. “When it was all said and done, I think he was quite shocked and said it was the best birthday he’s ever had. In our hearts, to hear that coming from a 9-year-old during these times was something special. We greatly appreciated everyone who participated, including the Parkersburg Fire and Police Departments. They helped to brighten a special day for a 9-year-old who will remember it for a long, long time.”