Constable: Wauconda Fire District found way to spread cheer during pandemic birthdays
The coronavirus arrived in the suburbs last March as if it were a curse from a disgruntled leprechaun seeking revenge for being cheated out of his St. Patrick's Day celebration. The pandemic laid waste to all our plans, even kids' birthday celebrations.
For her ninth birthday on March 18 of 2020, Maddie Myers and her mom, Emily Myers, were scheduled to spend a week of spring break frolicking on the beach on Marco Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. The coronavirus scuttled their trip and kept them home in Wauconda.
"I was kind of a little sad," Maddie says. "But then, when my mom surprised me, I was so happy."
Scrambling for a last-minute way to give Maddie a memorable birthday, Emily Myers found the answer in a Facebook post by Wauconda Fire District Battalion Chief Devin Mueller.
"I was imagining kids seeing all their birthdays going by, and thinking about how my boys would have felt not having parties," says Mueller, the father of three sons with a history of parties at pools and bouncy places. So he launched the idea of a birthday program, with crews from the Wauconda Fire District rolling past the birthday child's house, sirens blaring, lights flashing and a special birthday sign with the proper age to make it a birthday a kid never would forget.
Hours later, the first firetruck birthday drive-by rolled past the Myers home, with Mueller, following in the battalion's SUV, wishing Maddie a happy birthday over the vehicle's loudspeakers, as the stunned girl waved back.
"I heard the firetruck and I was wondering what the noise was, and then my mom told me. It was exciting," says Maddie, whose picture ended up on the front page of the Daily Herald.
"She still has the same shirt she wore in that picture in the newspaper. She won't let me wash it because she says she's famous," her mom says. "Every time a firetruck goes by, she says, 'They probably know who I am.'"
The firefighters did three more birthday drive-bys that afternoon, six more the following day, and nine on the day after that.
This March, we're still waiting for the vaccination to curb the pandemic, the virus to fade, and life to return to normal, or at least to the point where kids can have proper birthday celebrations again.
The end came sooner for the firefighters' birthday program.
After visiting more than 320 birthday children, a few teens, and even some military veterans in their golden years, Mueller had to pull the plug by the end of May 2020 so firefighters could get back to their daily schedules and regular training.
"You just feel terrible saying no. It's such a cool thing," Mueller says. "Even on my days off, I would try to get here and go on them."
Often, everyone on the street would come outside to watch, laugh and celebrate. It could get emotional.
"There were tears in this little girl's eyes, and then we started crying," Mueller remembers.
Celebrating birthdays never interfered with fire calls, he says. In fact, the response often was quicker because the truck was already on the street.
He remembers one birthday party where they were about to arrive at a house when a call came in. "We had to turn around and go the other way," says Mueller, who figured the crowd was confused when the firetruck sped in the opposite direction. "But we never stood anybody up. We always made it later."
With district stations in Wauconda, Island Lake and Volo, the firefighters covered 42 square miles, and turned down requests from beyond their boundaries.
Similar drive-bys with firefighters, police officers, village officials or just friends and neighborhoods took place in Round Lake, St. Charles, Wheaton, Lombard, Vernon Hills, Arlington Heights, Naperville and elsewhere across the suburbs. Once fresh and exciting, those events seem so 2020 these days.
When she turned 8, Maddie and her mom went to a movie theater, had their nails done and got lunch. Firefighters made her ninth birthday unique. This year, while they will wear masks and practice social distancing, Maddie and her mom are flying to Marco Island, where they'll spend time on the beach, in the pool, with Maddie's grandparents and have a visit with dolphins.
"It's the same," Maddie says when comparing her first pandemic birthday with her second pandemic birthday, making firetrucks pretty much the same as dolphins on the coolness scale.
"I'm going to be doing school for one week," says the Wauconda Grade School fourth-grader, whose e-learning classes are the same whether she's at home or poolside in Florida.
"Because of e-learning, we get to go down there for two weeks instead of one," Emily Myers says. "It kind of makes up for having two birthdays during the pandemic."
The girl, her mom, firefighters, newspaper columnists, and, perhaps, even dolphins don't want to envision a third pandemic birthday.