California Communities United by Car Parades During COVID-19 Lockdown

California Communities United by Car Parades During COVID-19 Lockdown
Elementary school students hold signs while watching a car parade organized by their teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Dawn Marie Wong)
Jamie Joseph

FRENCH VALLEY, Calif.—A single act of kindness goes a long way.

Michelle Jarreau, a retired nurse and stay-at-home mom, knew that her friend’s son, Josh, was sad. He was turning 9 on March 21, but because of stay-at-home restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, he would have to celebrate alone, without a party.

So she decided to throw him a parade instead.

Rather than have Josh miss out on his birthday celebration altogether, Jarreau arranged to have a couple of friends follow her and her children in the family minivan to the boy’s house in French Valley, a small community in Riverside County.

As they drove by, they slid open the side door, rolled down the windows, held out signs, honked the horn, played music, sang, and threw Josh a birthday parade he’ll never forget.

“Everybody was emotional—we were crying, they were crying—it was very emotional,” Jarreau told The Epoch Times.

“A few days later, one of the other children in the same friend circle had a birthday,” Jarreau said. “And we thought, ‘How fun to do it for her too!’ And this time, the parade was a couple cars bigger.”

Soon, what began for children and was “expected to be a couple here or there,” according to Jarreau, “exploded and turned into over 100 people.”

“Then, we started getting more and more requests,” Jarreau added.

That single act of kindness spawned a movement—expanding to more than 70 community parades and bringing smiles of joy to hundreds of families—until Riverside County issued an amended order on April 5 that reinforced the state's stay-at-home mandate, shutting the processions down.

From birthdays to anniversaries to school celebrations, Jarreau’s drive-by car parades served to unite Southern California communities during a time when residents needed it most—and inspired a group of dedicated teachers to hold car parades of their own for the students they miss so much.

A Movement Is Born

When Josh's happy family shared his birthday video on social media, people noticed.

“My friends kind of shared their videos, and things like that,” Jarreau said. “And really quickly, they had 1,500 views or things like that.

“People were commenting on how special that was ... because people within the friend circle had kind of experienced it firsthand. I was like, ‘Hey guys, what do you think if we just kind of do this for the community?’"

Before long, requests for parades were coming from nearby Hemet, Murrieta, and Temecula, and expanded to include anniversaries and adult birthdays. There were so many that Jarreau began to track them on Google Docs.

When she shared the document on Facebook, it garnered a significant amount of signups.

Every morning, she would send a map of the day’s starting point to a group of participating French Valley residents. Each parade—which averaged eight to 12 cars—would take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, and last two to three miles. There would be as many as nine stops each day.

“People would show up,” said Jarreau. “People from our church came, and people from the community came. We've had as many as 14 cars in the caravan.”

The car paraders weren’t shy about making their presence known, either.

“You know we’re coming,” she said. “We make a lot of noise.”

They even had a karaoke machine and a microphone, which they used to sing “Happy Birthday” through the car speakers.

“My family kept the dry erase board in the car, and every house, we would write that child's name on the dry erase board and hold it out the window,” Jarreau said.

Neighborhoods were greeted with car horns—each blaring a different note—coupled with “loud birthday music” that brought smiles to the faces of many residents.

 A car parade participant waves to the crowd during a parade of teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Darlene Dormanen)
A car parade participant waves to the crowd during a parade of teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Darlene Dormanen)

A Smiling 8-Year-Old

One of those residents is Zayra Allbritton, whose son turned 8 on April 1.

“We were fortunate to have a birthday parade for my son,” Allbritton told The Epoch Times.

“It touched my heart, how our community came together and made it so special in such uncertain times. Even the firefighters and his teacher at FV [French Valley Elementary School] came!”

She said, “I told whoever organized these parades that they really brought so much hope and joy, even for a day. That is exactly what we need in these times.”

Allbritton said she and her son “stopped counting” after seeing 20 cars roll past their house.

“My son Andrew’s reaction was, ‘Wow! Mom, all of these people are here for me? That is so awesome, best birthday ever!’

“He was so excited, and jumping up and down,” Allbritton recalled. “I had happy tears coming down.”

Life for the Albritton family has been challenging in quarantine, especially with Zayra’s military husband being deployed to Guam. Andrew misses his father, and came close to missing his birthday, too.

But this particular act of kindness brought the community together, and restored some hope.

A Very Special Anniversary

Fourteen years ago, on April 2, Anthony Hildebrand proposed to his then-girlfriend, Karen.

“I was the office manager at a doctor's office, and the doctors came up to me and told me that there was a really unhappy patient in one of the rooms that wanted to speak with me,” Karen Hildebrand told The Epoch Times.

She walked in nervously to find her future husband standing there.

“And I think the first words out of my mouth were, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm going to vomit!’” she said. The next word out of her mouth was a jubilant “Yes.”

Karen’s husband—a 17-year first responder—is captain of the local fire department in their French Valley neighborhood, where they’ve lived for six years. The couple have four young sons, the oldest of whom is 13.

 The Hildebrand family stands in front of the family RV, where first responder Anthony self-isolates, in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Karen Hildebrand/Stood Still Photography)
The Hildebrand family stands in front of the family RV, where first responder Anthony self-isolates, in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Karen Hildebrand/Stood Still Photography)

Three weeks ago, because of the pandemic protocols of all emergency personnel in the county, Anthony chose to self-isolate in the family’s Jayco RV, parked in front of their home, as a safety precaution. Their oldest son has a heart condition and the youngest was born prematurely with respiratory issues.

The adjustment hasn't been easy for Karen and her sons, who are used to having a “very involved” father who helps with cooking and cleaning.

“It’s been hard not having him around,” she said, fighting back tears. “We only visit with him outside.”

Every year, the couple spends their anniversary enjoying special dinner dates and romantic weekend getaways. But this year would have to be different, due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus.

Karen knew she needed to be creative, if she wanted to make her husband feel loved on the first anniversary they would spend physically apart. So, she reached out to Jarreau.

Jarreau, who until then had only organized birthday parades, “immediately agreed” to help. A mother of four herself, she's also married to a nurse who currently works on the front lines of relief efforts, in a correctional facility that houses COVID-19 patients.

On April 2, nearly a dozen community members drove by the Hildebrands' home to wish the couple a happy 14th anniversary, honking their horns and playing music. Each car was uniquely decorated, including some with streamers, while others had homemade signs plastered on the doors.

They drove up and down the street, the pavement lined with rose petals.

“She was sending me pictures of her own family—of signs that they were making—and it was making me tear up, because it was very, very sweet,” Karen Hildebrand said.

Karen’s sister, who is spending lockdown with Karen to help out with the kids, also took part in the parade.

“So, she took all of my kids and participated as well, without telling,” Karen said, with a laugh. “So it was really sweet that they drove by too, and we had a couple of friends who drove by with them. ... It was really sweet.”

Anthony was confused when he heard the couple’s favorite songs blaring from down the street. Then, he heard the pair’s honeymoon song, “The World,” by Brad Paisley.

“Then he realized it was for us, and he was really surprised,” said Karen. “And grateful.”

The couple, which had been separated by social distancing, was able to enjoy a special anniversary together after all.

Teachers Organize 'Wave Parade' for Students

“I miss the smiles on those precious faces,” kindergarten teacher Kristi Robinson told The Epoch Times.

“We were able to go back in our classroom and grab a couple of things real quick, one last time,” first-grade teacher Darlene Dormanen added. “It's like my room is frozen in time the day that I left it, thinking I was gonna be back.”

 An excited student holds up a sign at a car parade organized by his teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Darlene Dormanen)
An excited student holds up a sign at a car parade organized by his teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Darlene Dormanen)

Teacher Brittni Rowland said she misses seeing those “lightbulb” moments from her students. She told The Epoch Times that she’s trying to replicate those moments online, and “it’s heartwarming” at times—but just not the same.

These teachers all wanted to do something that would remind their students how much they care, and how much they miss them. After seeing other car processions in the community, the teachers decided to begin holding parades for their students.

On April 1, teachers from both French Valley and Susan LaVorgna Elementary Schools began their expeditions through the French Valley neighborhoods.

Flyers, phone calls, and online announcements were made ahead of time, so that students would be able to create greeting signs for their teachers.

Families waited up to an hour on their front driveways to wave to their teachers.

“We had 45 cars in our parade that were all decorated with posters, balloons, and streamers,” said Robinson, who added she thinks she “needed the parade more than they [the students] did.”

“I was very emotional during the parade,” she said. “Seeing my current students and their families holding signs and yelling how much they miss me brought me to tears.”

Teachers drove by and yelled, “We miss you!”—waving out of their sunroofs and windows—as kids waved back and held up their signs.

Robinson said she even saw students she had taught in the past, “even some who are now in high school, holding signs saying they miss and love me!”

One of those former students, Jesse Moritz, is now a senior in high school. He found his fifth-grade class T-shirt from French Valley Elementary and squeezed into it for the parade. He said nobody believed that he had “kept the shirt all these years.”

“It's kind of nice to be like, ‘Oh, there's still people that care about you,’ and I think that these people that haven't seen me in, you know, 10 to 12 years now, still look out for us,” he told The Epoch Times.

“And still care about us—it was just really nice to know that you're not alone in this journey.”

The stay-at-home restrictions also have led to the cancellation of all the rite-of-passage activities reserved for graduating seniors.

One of those activities is the “Walk of Distinction,” a day when seniors return to their elementary schools and take one last stroll through the halls they grew up in, symbolizing the end of a chapter.

“We were supposed to walk the halls with all the kindergarten through fifth graders in there, just to say hi and hello to all of our teachers from when we had them,” Moritz said. “It was like a whole-day event, and obviously with everything going on, we can't do that anymore.”

The car parade, in a sense, replaced that opportunity for Moritz. He said he saw almost all of his elementary school teachers passing by.

“It was definitely just a reality hit,” he said. “Also, kind of a motivation. Like, ‘Well, like, you made it this far, keep going.’”

Parent Perla Aguilar said her three children were very excited to see all of their teachers—and more, including staff.

“It was really nice to see that the principal was there too,” she told The Epoch Times. “Having their vans and their cars decorated made it even more exciting.”

She added: “They put a lot of work into it, so that was really nice. It's a beautiful experience, because who would have thought? I wish every year it happened.”

“It just was really heartwarming and it showed me how much my kids love me,” Rowland said. “But me being out there also showed them how much I appreciate and love them too.”

Dormanen, who’s been teaching for 21 years and is currently at Susan LaVorgna Elementary, said the parade was “really heartwarming, and really a little sad.”

“It was just really sweet to, just to see everybody, and to kind of make a connection, even though it was still a little distant,” she said, holding back tears.

At the end of the year, she usually creates a memory book, where she takes a photo with all of her first-graders. But this year, she said, the photo would just be of her alone.

Still, she thought of calling her student’s parents and requesting photos of the children learning online, “because someday we'll look back on it,” she said.

 Children hold signs at a car parade organized by teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Darlene Dormanen)
Children hold signs at a car parade organized by teachers in French Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Darlene Dormanen)

When they do, they’ll see what a year first grade was. “Definitely something out of the ordinary they'll never forget,” she added.

What they may remember most—what many people in the area may remember most—will likely be the way the community rose together in the spirit and camaraderie of these homegrown parades to celebrate life at a time when it was surely needed most.

On April 5, when Riverside County issued an amended order that strictly prohibited all gatherings and nonessential travel, Jarreau sadly announced the suspension of all birthday parades until further notice, citing the desire to comply with the community’s safety regulations.

“I want to extend a huge thank you to all of the families that have come out to join our birthday parade the last several weeks!” she wrote on Facebook.

“For the 70-plus families we had the honor of doing a parade for, we thank you for the honor of being part of your special day—your parade was the highlight of our day!”

For many who felt fortunate to share the experience, the feeling was mutual.

Jamie is a California-based reporter covering issues in Los Angeles and state policies for The Epoch Times. In her free time, she enjoys reading nonfiction and thrillers, going to the beach, studying Christian theology, and writing poetry. You can always find Jamie writing breaking news with a cup of tea in hand.