When Marianna Hernandez, a teaching assistant at Giblyn Elementary School, came down with Covid-19 in March, she felt terrible. Not only was she stuck at home fighting her illness, but she was also separated from her students at Giblyn, who she figured were all having a difficult time adapting to distance learning and life amid the pandemic.
As soon as she was medically cleared to return to work, Hernandez threw herself into helping her community as she volunteered to distribute food to students who lacked transportation through the district's “Grab & Go” meal program.
And when Hernandez learned that one the students she was delivering food to had a birthday coming up, she decided to go a step further and, together with fellow teaching assistant Michele Velasquez, founded the Birthday Brigade, a group of Giblyn teaching assistants who helped celebrate the birthdays of nearly 100 students in Freeport from April to the end of June.
“After I recovered, I had all this energy that I needed to put into something,” Hernandez said. “I needed to do this.”
Although Hernandez had won her own bout against Covid-19, she recognized how badly the virus had ravaged her own local community. Freeport was the third-hardest hit community in Nassau County, with more than 20 new cases being reported every day during the height of the pandemic.
Despite her doctor’s advice to continue to rest and replenish her strength after finally testing negative for Covid-19, Hernandez said she could not fight back her drive to help her community during these difficult times.
After the success of the initial birthday surprise, Velasquez recognized what the act meant for her students, so she pushed Hernandez to keep it going.
As they assembled help from fellow teaching assistants and the Giblyn administration, Velasquez put together a calendar of all the students’ birthdays and the group organized how they would celebrate each birthday.
Marilyn Pignataro, a member of the Birthday Brigade, said the group became skilled at holding the celebrations. They would meet up at their cars after their last E-learning class, get their supplies ready and head out to the homes of the kids scheduled that day.
The Birthday Brigade would sing happy birthday, in English or Spanish, with Pignataro and Velasquez playing the ukulele and maracas, respectively, to add to the festive mood.
“The kids’ and parents’ reactions made it all worth it,” Pignataro said. “Doing it gave us so much joy. I felt like the sunshine, coming in and brightening people’s days for a while.”
“Every time we went out, we made someone smile,” Velasquez added. “It shows that any act of kindness matters.”
Hernandez also let the students wear a special birthday crown during the celebrations as the teaching assistants cheered for the students and often offered balloons, ribbons and cake.
Although Hernandez admitted that it was difficult to juggle volunteering, teaching and doing the Birthday Brigade, she always felt fulfilled after every birthday.
“We just had to do it for them.” Hernandez said. “Giblyn has always been my family.”