Friday, Sept. 11, 2020
In late January, about six weeks before the pandemic arrived in the United States in earnest, Louie Correa and his wife, Erin, threw a birthday party for their 4-year-old daughter, Maddie.
“We always go over the top for birthdays and [Erin] and I were talking about how we were fortunate to celebrate before the lockdown began,” Correa said. “And then we realized we live in a neighborhood full of kids who won’t be able to celebrate their birthdays in the same way.”
Correa, the senior director of development for the School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University, wanted to do something for those children. About a year earlier, he and his colleagues had started a lunch-and-learn series at work (they called them “Brené Brown Bag Lunches” after watching the nationally known speaker and bestselling author’s Netflix special for their first session). In March, as the pandemic spread and Correa brainstormed ideas for his neighborhood, he and his coworkers watched a video on the science of well-being featuring Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a Yale University psychology professor and host of a popular podcast called “The Happiness Lab.”
“The timing of it all was so meaningful,” Correa said. “[Santos] talked about getting through the pandemic, and she had specific tenets for doing so: acts of kindness, expressing gratitude, physical activity, getting outside, and meditating. And I really tried to take that to heart.
“We really wanted to do something for [the kids]. Around the same time, I had been listening to ‘The Happiness Lab’ and [doing] various Brené Brown Bag Lunches with my team in the School of Pharmacy. The two things kind of coalesced.”
Later that month, while working from his home in Midlothian, Virginia, he and Erin and a neighbor, Caitlyn Noto-Doan, planned and hosted a “Birthday Brigade” in which neighborhood residents paraded their cars through the community, honking their horns and singing “Happy Birthday” to children. The first brigade took place March 22, and over the past six months the event has grown into a themed parade every Sunday evening.
“I initially brought it up to my wife and she liked the idea,” Correa said. “But I’m not necessarily a great logistics and event planner, so I reached out to Caitlyn. She is in events and works at the Discovery Channel. It’s a logistical undertaking. You have to collect dates of birthdays, you have to map the routes, drive the routes. We’ve done it 25 weeks in a row now.”
How 1 man spreads joy with a community 'Birthday Brigade'
Correa said the goal was to be “physically distant, but socially excellent.” The gatherings have brought the suburban community together at a time when in-person gatherings are limited. In June, Correa was featured on WWBT NBC 12 and received its Acts of Kindness award, which comes with a $300 gift. A fundraiser by trade, he donated the prize to a local charity, Celebrate RVA, which throws birthday parties for underserved youth, then watched as over 100 other donors joined him to raise $5,300 for the organization. In early September, the Birthday Brigade was the subject of a story on the “Today” show, and Correa’s neighbors surprised him during an Aug. 26 filming for the show with a parade in front of his house to celebrate his 40th birthday. He even got to meet Santos, who was a special guest on the “Today” show segment and later invited Correa to appear on a future episode of “The Happiness Lab.”
It has been a surreal experience, Correa said.
“When they came and surprised me on my birthday, I was blown away,” he said. “And I was talking with some friends and they were like, ‘No, this was part of it. This is going to be on the “Today” show.’ I didn't even realize that part.
“I didn’t have any anticipation of getting anything in return [for doing this]. I just wanted to do something for kids.”
Santos’ new season of “The Happiness Lab” starts later this month. Meanwhile, the Birthday Brigade continues, growing larger each week. Families dress up in costumes and decorate cars. There are elaborate balloon arrangements. In July, somebody showed up dressed as Santa Claus for a “Christmas in July” theme. That month, VCU’s mascot, Rodney the Ram, also made an appearance.
“I mean, how cool is that?” Correa said. “I never envisioned this being something where VCU's mascot would show up.”
For Correa, who has worked in philanthropy with donors and volunteers for most of his career, the experience has offered important lessons in kindness and gratitude during a chaotic time.
“I think the cascading effect of kindness is pretty amazing. [And then] you realize what you get in return. Sure, it’s powerful to see the kids jumping up and down, but it’s just as powerful, if not more so, to hear the parent who is recording a video on their camera [and they are] crying or laughing hysterically — or getting messages from them about how touched they were, or from the other people [on the brigade] who say, ‘This was really good for my soul. I needed this today.’
“Every day I work with people who are so generous to VCU in the way they give. And you really learn from them. [They] get so much joy out of giving back. It’s really powerful and it means so much to them, [and it] rubs off on you over time. You don’t build a life by trying to seek stuff for yourself. You want a life well-lived? It comes from doing for other people.”
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