Firefighters, police join huge birthday parade for young boy


By Luis Andres Henao and Jessie Wardarski - Associated Press



Jessiah Lee smiled and watched the parade. His parade.

A fire truck blared its sirens. Police cruisers flashed their lights. Dozens of families in cars decorated with balloons honked horns, raised handmade signs and yelled: “Happy Birthday, Jessiah!”

None of them knew this 6-year-old boy, but they were all there for him on his special day. The surprise drive-by birthday party in an Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood was organized on social media by Ashley Johnson, an accountant who met him while volunteering at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., four years ago.

The relationship did not end after the shelter closed, and Jessiah’s family found a home. Johnson took Jessiah to museums, parks and on a trip to New York City for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This year, she wanted to throw him a Lego-themed party — but then, COVID-19 intervened.

“Birthdays are such a big thing at any age,” Johnson said. “It’s such a celebration, life is so fragile, and so I felt I couldn’t accept the defeat of ‘we’ll do nothing.’”

Her idea was inspired by drive-by birthday celebrations that have brought joy to children and adults across the U.S. during the quarantine. She wanted something similar for Jessiah. But bigger.

Recalling his love of firetrucks, she passed by a fire station and asked for help. No response.

Then the day before the day she had planned for Jessiah’s party, the phone rang. A firefighter on the other line — Johnson calls him her angel — asked if his station could join the parade.

She had 24 hours to plan, so she went on Nextdoor, the neighborhood social media site, and asked other people to join.

“In need of a MAJOR favor from all who are willing!” she wrote in an April 9 post also shared on Facebook. “I have a sweet sweet kid I met while volunteering … His 6th birthday is today and sadly I didn’t get to host a party this year BUT I just got a last minute reply from the fire station, and they’re willing to do a drive by and lead the way for a mini birthday parade …”

That night, she blew up balloons, prepared signs and made decorations. She barely slept.

The next day, she took Jessiah to fly a kite, just in case no one showed up. Then, at 5:29 p.m., the fire truck, police cruisers and dozens of cars turned the a corner. Some neighbors shook pom poms; others offered gifts, all from a safe distance.

Jessiah’s favorite? A man who played “Happy Birthday” on an accordion.

“E-veryyyybody came!” Jessiah said.

His mother, Melissa Jones, was moved to tears.

“It really just touched my soul,” the single mother of six said in a video conference.

“It goes to show the kindness that’s still in people’s hearts as far as just making that day happy for him, making that day memorable for him.”

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While nonstop global news about the effects of the coronavirus have become commonplace, so, too, are the stories about the kindness of strangers and individuals who have sacrificed for others. “One Good Thing” is an AP continuing series reflecting these acts of kindness.

By Luis Andres Henao and Jessie Wardarski

Associated Press