No party? No problem. These people found a way to celebrate their special day that was just as fun and even more meaningful than a traditional birthday bash

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
March 23, 2021 09:15 AM
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pandemic pay it forward
Credit: Vanessa Topper

On the e-vite for 6th grader Mikayla Gounard's drive-by birthday party (pictured above), she told her friends that she didn't want presents.

"I didn't really need anything," she tells PEOPLE. "Everything they would have given me was plastic and stuff I really didn't need."

Instead, she asked for donations to help the homeless man who found and returned Gounard's 80-year-old grandmother's lost wallet.

"I was super inspired by that story," Gounard tells PEOPLE. She wanted to pay forward the kindness the stranger showed her grandmother.

On Dec. 22, her 12th birthday, Gounard and her mom set up a table in their Tiburon, Calif. driveway. Using a pair of tongs,  Gounard handed out candy canes, goodie bags and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins) to her friends. On the table was a framed photo of the man who found her grandma's wallet in a Dumpster outside the coffee shop where her grandma dropped it. She raised $479 that day.

A GoFundMe raised an additional $55,000, which Gounard gave to 56-year-old David Sean Currey – along with a note saying that in a dark tunnel, there is always light.

Vanessa Topper
Credit: Vanessa Topper

"He started crying, which was really sweet," Gounard says.

The homeless man was able to check into a hotel, and open a bank account.

"It was just perfect -- in a year that was everything but perfect," says her mother, Vanessa Topper, 49, a custom gift curator. "She did it all on her own. It came from her heart."

Across the country, kids -- and adults! --  are having pay-it-forward pandemic parties – skipping traditional birthday celebrations, foregoing gifts, and opting to spread kindness and help others.

Dawn Buckingham pandemic birthday parties
Credit: Courtesy Dawn Buckingham

After the devastating Texas snow and ice storm, Texas State Senator Dawn Buckingham spent her 53rd birthday on Feb. 21 in Harper, Texas handing out water and food and supplies to people who had no power for 10 days.

"There's nothing better than helping those who need help on your birthday," Buckingham told PEOPLE on her birthday morning.  After the storm, Buckingham invited strangers into her Lakeway, Texas home to use her gas stove to cook meals. It was the end of hunting season – and she had a freezer full of venison she shared with strangers.

In Mineola, N.Y., fifth grader Mateo Solis's grandmother disinfects COVID patients' rooms at NYU Winthrop hospital. The stories his grandmother told inspired Mateo to spend his 10th birthday raising money for the youngest COVID patient at the hospital, a 3-year-old girl.

"I just wanted to help," Mateo says.

Pandemic pay-it-forward
Credit: Carla Fernandes

He put 150 flyers in mailboxes and at local stores and delis near his home. On his May 3 birthday, his mom set up a table in the front yard.

For eight hours, people walked by or drove up to put money in his donation jar.

"It was really amazing," says his mother, 45-year-old event marketer, Carla Fernandes. "People just kept coming."

In the end, he raised $1,014.96, which the hospital arranged for him to deliver to the young patient and her family after she was released (below).

Pandemic pay-it-forward
Credit: Carla Fernandes

"Everyone can put in a small amount and it can help so much," Mateo says.  "During hard times, everyone really has to help each other out."

pandemic pay it forward sylvia koss
Credit: Sylvia Koss

To celebrate Sylvia Koss's 30th birthday, she planned a "30 Is a Drag"-theme party -- "some of my friends are drag queens, they were going to perform," she says. "It was going to be awesome."

But as her December 13 birthday grew closer, Koss watched the number of COVID cases climb.

"It didn't seem responsible to have even 10 people together for an event," says the insurance agent in Des Moines, Iowa.

So she scrapped her plans, and in early December launched a Facebook fundraiser with the goal of donating 30 pizzas to a local ER to celebrate her 30th birthday.

hospital pizzas
Credit: Sylvia Koss

"The fundraiser blew up," she says. She raised $1,700, which was enough to deliver 32 pizzas to five different hospitals — 160 pizzas in total — as well as a $350 gift card to a sixth hospital to buy pizzas Christmas Eve.   

She loves the happy pizza-party pictures she received from hospital staffers.

"Their joy brought me a lot of joy," Koss says. "That was the best part."

Thinking about hosting your own pay-it-forward party? Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Find A Cause Close To Your Heart: Raise money for something that matters to you personally.
  • Set Up a Way Friends and Family Can Donate Online: Whether it’s a GoFundMe or sending your Venmo or PayPal info, find a way for people who don’t have cash to contribute. Facebook makes it easy by allowing you to solicit donations for a charity through their Fundraisers tab.
  • Spread the Word: Share what you’re doing on social media, make flyers, or email friends and family asking for help!