Elise Howell-Fehling, of Seaford, has an unusual birthday tradition: She asks for donations to charities in lieu of gifts for herself.
Opening up her birthday parties to the community each year, she requests gift cards for three of her favorite local charities — Karen’s Hope, a home for adults with special needs in Seaford; the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, because Howell-Fehling lost her mother and grandmother to pancreatic cancer; and the Safe Center LI, a coalition focused on domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.
Howell-Fehling, 45, a waitress at Seaford’s Bayview Tavern, said she averages 200 guests each year at her birthday bashes. She has tried to throw them annually for the last 20 years or so, despite the huge cost, she said. This year, her party cost about $22,000, because she hired two caricaturists, an illusionist, a face painter and more. It took place at Bayview Tavern on Aug. 11 — 11 days before her actual birthday.
She said her parties are big events, with everybody “interacting all day long.” This year’s bash netted more than $3,000 in gift cards for local families in need. The cards were mostly from Stop & Shop, ShopRite and CVS, with others thrown into the mix. People were still dropping off gifts cards, she said last week, adding that she would rather have gift cards than monetary donations.
“It’s different when someone just hands you a 50-dollar bill,” Howell-Fehling said. “It’s just not the same, because it doesn’t hit home as hard.”
The families who receive the donations are not destitute, but do not have extra income, she said. “I just want to bring out the awareness,” she said. “It’s not the homeless person who doesn’t have shoes or a winter coat. It could be your neighbor who you live right next door to, who has a beautiful home but just doesn’t have that little bit of extra that they need.”
Howell-Fehling said she started asking for donations about 20 years ago, when she was working for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She would ask all of the guests at her birthday parties to bring school bags full of supplies for children. That eventually created a huge storage issue, so now she asks for the gift cards to local supermarkets, CVS, Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Target.
She said she feels overwhelmed and gets teary-eyed just thinking about all the donations. Some people hear about what she does and donate without attending a party.
In addition to her birthday, Howell-Fehling also throws a holiday party at Christmastime. “Anything I do during the year where somebody wants to say thank you to me, I ask them to give donations,” she said. “I don’t need another Yankee Candle in my world.”
Her holiday party is a “ladies night out” for moms. The women create Christmas ornaments, and their husbands bring the children to the party, at which Santa Claus gives out presents. During the Christmas season, Howell-Fehling said, she focuses on finding more families in Seaford that need a little extra help.
“Let’s just say there’s that one family who had a fire and lost everything,” she said. “Somebody can donate that $50 gift card so they can go buy clothes or whatever else they need.”
Howell-Fehling said that when she was growing up, her family would “adopt” 10 children from the Coalition Against Domestic Violence each year, and anonymously purchase gifts for caseworkers to give them.
“I live in a very small community down here in Seaford,” Howell-Fehling said. “If you can’t help your neighbors, who can you help?”
She said she retired from her desk job three years ago because she wanted to talk to people and make them happy. “If I can give back in any way to the community that makes me smile,” she said, “that’s what I have to do.”
Her birthday parties honor the memory of her parents. She lost her father just before Hurricane Sandy, her childhood home in Seaford Harbor was heavily damaged in the storm, and her mother died right after Sandy. She has since rebuilt the house, and lives in it today.
“I just realized life was a little too short and a little too precious for me not to do whatever I want to do,” she said. “I owe it all to my parents, because they made me who I am today.”
Jean DiDomenico, a patron at the Bayview Tavern, described Howell-Fehling as “an amazing human being” who thinks of every little party detail — and thinks of everybody before herself.
She is “the most selfless human being who you could ever meet” DiDomenico said, adding that it warms her heart simply to know that someone like Howell-Fehling exists.