HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, NJ - The cars began lining up at 4:45pm on Wednesday, May 27. Some were decorated with balloons, or signs, or streamers. Some people played music out their windows, opened for fresh air and sunshine of a late May day. Some folks brought children; some brought their dogs.
The line of cars waited along Hamilton Avenue for the final birthday caravan in the borough, drawing to a conclusion an event which grew from a handful of participants to include the Hasbrouck Heights Police and Fire Departments.
It was Friday, March 13 when Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco shut down schools. About one week later, Governor Murphy signed his stay-at-home order, and then would later close schools for the rest of the school year in early May. Those events prevented school children from celebrating their birthdays with their classmates and at home with friends and family.
One woman's simple gesture of acknowledging children's birthdays grew into a town-wide celebration.
Missy Handschuh realized children were missing these important celebrations and began a small parade on April 1. She and a handful of residents met at Woodland Park and drove past homes to celebrate, staying in their cars.
"I just wanted to bring some happiness to people," Handschuch said.
She said a week later Hasbrouck Heights Police Patrolman Brian Donohue reached out to her to help coordinate.
"It started with seeing another department doing them with only police vehicles," said Donohue. "Being dedicated to Community Policing, especially the kids in town, I brought the idea of doing them to the Chief, who without hesitation was on board."
Next to join the birthday parade was the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department. Chief Dave Gumbrecht said he'd seen the posts on Facebook and jumped at the opportunity.
Donohue created the sign up sheets and worked with Handschuch to coordinate the dates. According to Handschuch, parades were originally daily. As the event and number of birthdays grew, the parades were scheduled for three times a week, then twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Handschuch said people even came out on Easter and Mother's Day for the parades. For one event, Gumbrecht said there were between 70 to 75 for one parade.
A typical parade line-up would include Chief Michael Colaneri in the lead followed residents' cars, members of the Habrouck Heights Fire Department, more cars, and the HHFD at the end. A police car would go ahead of the group to hold traffic for the caravan.
"He (Donahue) deserved a lot of credit," Handschuch. "They all do, the Chief, and Fire Department."
"I participated in some of the drive-bys and to see the faces of the children as we rode by made my day," said Donohue. "The Chief participated in the majority of the birthday celebrations and was happy to extend the celebrations as long as we could."
May 27 was the final birthday parade which had 12 cars mixed in with HHPD and HHFD vehicles. With the governor's increase of outdoor gatherings to 25 people on May 22 and the increase traffic on the roadways, the HHPD decided it was the proper time to end the parades, it announced in a Facebook post.
"We received excellent feedback from the community and would've loved to keep the drive-bys going, but the increase traffic on the roadways made it extremely difficult," said Donohue. "The drive-bys truly showed the unity of our community during this pandemic."
"Part of me misses it already," said Gumbrecht. "It made me happy to see that the kids are so happy."
"It was great to see the town come together," said Handschuch. "It was awesome"
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