Suncoast PACE participant Barbara shows off her birthday cake

Empath Health volunteer Bob Estes has a special delivery to make. With a cake in one hand and a bag of goodies in the other, he makes his way to the front door of Barbara Rose’s home.

The reason for the special delivery: it’s her birthday.

Standing on her front porch, she is presented with flowers, a birthday crown, a blanket and a cake decorated in her favorite teal-colored frosting. Bob holds a tablet already in a Zoom call with 16 teen volunteers ready and waiting to sing “Happy Birthday.” Even behind the protective face mask, Barbara’s face lights up with a smile.

“This was such an unexpected surprise,” says Barbara, thanking the teen volunteers for being a part of a celebration she may not have otherwise had. Their involvement was a special and heartwarming touch for her, especially considering she had a rewarding career as a child psychiatrist before retiring to Florida for the warmer climate.

Suncoast PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly), a member of Empath Health, offers participants like Barbara the services to live a healthy, active and social lifestyle both independently at home and in the community. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, normal program offerings have been adapted for social distancing.

“The idea for Birthday in a Box came initially while I was trying to find a way to provide birthday parties for pediatric patients,” explains Traci Sutton, volunteer coordinator for Empath Health. “Before the pandemic began, teen volunteers would visit PACE participants for their birthday bringing a cake and a small gift.”

Birthday in a Box combines these ideas to ensure Suncoast PACE participants feel celebrated on their special day. Many participants may be struggling with feelings of isolation and by delivering a party to their doorstep, they can find the needed reassurance that people still care.

“The responses I have received from the participants when I call and offer a birthday cake have been amazing,” adds Sutton. “They have all been excited and appreciative.”

The new initiative has quickly taken off, with about a dozen parties happening in the first month. To start the celebration, an adult volunteer, while wearing the appropriate PPE, brings a personalized birthday cake and a small gift to the participant’s front door. Once it has been delivered, teen volunteers host a virtual party on Zoom to sing happy birthday. Teens also help with making the card and the gift –a handmade blanket and a birthday crown.

“This has transformed my whole day, my week, my month,” says Barbara. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for such a wonderful gift. I am so touched.”