FAIRFIELD, NJ — Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel Valenzano of Fairfield found a special way to celebrate her 7th birthday by giving back to the community—all while practicing social distancing.

In lieu of a birthday car parade, Erin Valenzano, Rachel's mother, asked any friends and family members planning to drive by their home on Rachel's birthday to bring donations of non-perishable pet and food items to be delivered to Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter and Cumac Food Pantry in Paterson.

"Although the times have changed, Rachel and I talked about doing something special [for her birthday]," said Erin.

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She added that it is not out of the ordinary for Rachel to be thinking of others. In fact, Rachel aspires to become a veterinarian and "always talks about helping people and animals," her mother said.

"She'll come out of her room and randomly want to donate a stuffed animal to someone who would like it," she said. "She takes walks at home and at the shore and picks up random trash (with a grabber) to help keep the neighborhood clean. Rachel and her brother, Eddie, had a lemonade stand at a garage sale on Long Beach Island and brought all their profits to an animal shelter in Ocean County."

The family suggested donations of canned protein, pasta, pasta sauce, rice, peanut butter, jelly, diapers and baby formula for the pantry and specified items needed for the animal shelter.

"Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter in East Hanover was our original spot," said Erin. "We adopted our dog, Montana, from there in 2006 and support their Mutts Mania event in the fall at Lurker Park. They do a wonderful job.

"The food shelter was actually harder to lock up, believe it or not, because some were not collecting during the pandemic, but Cumac in Paterson was super excited to accept."

Erin added that her daughter also received a few personal gifts from family members, friends and neighbors. 

"We were glad we got a beautiful day and got some out-of-town friends to come out and see us too," she said. "At the end of the day, it's a positive message to everyone and a great help to those in need. Thank you to everyone who selflessly donated so much."