Serving together at the Deerfield Gables memory care, Karen Harrington, Resident Assistant, and Carol Anne LeClair, Volunteer, have discovered that both believe birthdays are a big deal— that the anniversary of the day a person came into the world is worth celebrating. They also see a birthday as a chance to throw a party and oh, how they love a party!
Side by side, they admit that they are “in cahoots” to make sure every staff person serving residents of the Deerfield Gables memory care is celebrated on their birthday. Karen bakes a cake. Carol Anne brings flowers and a balloon. Everyone signs a card and then, at lunchtime, staff and residents of the floor gather to sing “Happy Birthday” and applaud the employee whose special day is on the calendar.
This all started over 4 years ago when Carol Anne’s mother, Fern Olson, moved to The Deerfield and she met Karen. “My mom connected very quickly with Karen and they bonded together really well,” Carol Anne remembers.
They soon learned that Karen, Fern and Carol Anne were all born in June. Karen said, “Fern and I had code names for each other corresponding with our birth dates.” Fern’s birthday: June 13 and Karen’s: June 27. “Hey #27,” Fern would call out to Karen who would respond, “Yes, #13?” The exchange always made everyone smile. Carol Anne said, “It was a joy watching those two together.”
Carol Anne had been celebrating her mother’s birthday for as long as she could remember, so when June 13 rolled around, she came through the Gables doorway with cupcakes, flowers and a big balloon for Fern. Over the years the party grew and Carol Anne brought enough cupcakes for the staff to join the celebration. Fern passed away in September 2017 at age 95. When June 2018 arrived, “I had no one to celebrate, so I decided to surprise Karen and celebrate her birthday with cupcakes, flowers and a giant balloon, just like I had for my mother,” Carol Anne said. “A birthday is a day to show someone just how much we love and appreciate them. It was my way to thank Karen for how well she cared for Mom,” she said.
When Carol Anne walked into the Gables at lunchtime on June 27, 2018, Karen was shocked. “The first year she really got me,” said Karen. “It was a big surprise.” Halfway through their cupcakes, they looked at each other and said, “This is fun! Let’s do birthday parties for all the staff at the Gables memory care!”
And so they did. The first few parties were complete surprises. Over time, the element of surprise waned but staff members say the joy of celebrating each other remains.
Carol Anne explains that she does this for the joy and camaraderie. “Kindness goes a long way, so I think recognizing birthdays of ‘working friends’ is huge,” she said. She has also found a spiritual meaning as a volunteer in living out the PHS stated value of Service Excellence. “Our faith asks us to serve others. What better way to serve God than to celebrate the lives of others and bring them joy?” she said.
Karen’s reason is forthright, “This is great fun,” she said, “and it just makes me feel good!” She’s not alone. Karen and Carol have found that staff birthday parties are a feel-good occasion for everyone involved. “I think it means the world to the staff, but it also means the world to the residents,” said Carol Anne. “This has become a big deal for everyone.”
Although the schedule of parties changes along with staff, they celebrate 10 birthdays together each year. June is their biggest month. Along with Karen, Carol Anne and several staff with June birthdays, they also remember and celebrate Fern. Carol Anne finds comfort in spending the day remembering with others who knew and cared for her mother. “We may not officially say that this is in her memory but we usually start to reminisce about the funny things my mom would say or do. It causes us to pause and think about Mom in a loving way and special times we shared here together,” she said.
Karen and Carol Anne’s birthday project has built an enduring friendship between them as does the dedication they share to the residents and staff at The Gables memory care. They also share a higher goal. Carol Anne explains, “My vision that this takes off in other areas of The Deerfield where we can see staff birthdays celebrated. Everyone has a birthday and everyone loves to feel loved. We can multiply this joy and then every (employee) in the building is being celebrated and thanked for their excellent service. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
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