“It’s Felix’s birthday! Make sure to wish him a happy birthday if you see him. Happy birthday, Felix!” is what receptionist Janet Kulla would announce from her desk in the lobby of United Cerebral Palsy Central California’s Fresno center.
At least that’s what would happen if COVID-19 hadn’t forced us to shut our doors in March, sending our students home to safely shelter in place.
In normal times when birthdays happen at our centers, UCPCC staff and students celebrate with cheers and revelry. Some families even bring in pizza and cake.
Since we’ve been closed, however, UCPCC staff have had to get creative. And that’s how the party bus was born.
The UCPCC party bus is a celebration on wheels. UCPCC staff decorate the windows, blow up balloons and take off to the homes of students from our adult programs to cheer and dance with them while celebrating their birthdays.
Emily Mercado, UCPCC’s adult programs student advisor, says the party bus idea was the invention of several staff members.
Mercado says the staff are creative and pushing themselves out of their comfort zones to reach students.
“Kristine and Monica have taken the responsibility of the party bus and are doing a great job organizing the staff and tailoring each bus we send out to the student they are going to see so they are all a little different,” Mercado explains.
The feedback has all been positive, Mercado says.
“Our parents and students love the party bus!” she says. “I was contacted by a parent all the way from Oregon to express their gratitude and excitement about the special opportunity.”
For Jose, a student at the Fresno site, having the bus celebrate his 43rd birthday was a complete surprise.
“They talked to the owner of the company that owns the house I live in without me knowing,” Jose says. “I was surprised!”
Jose had a hard time keeping the “happy tears” at bay.
“The best part of my day pretty much was definitely when the party bus showed up,” Jose says. “It was. It really did touch me.”
Monica Gonzalez, who heads UCPCC’s art department, says being separated from the UCPCC students hasn’t just been hard on them – it’s been hard on staff, as well.
“My favorite part is being reunited with them,” Gonzalez says. “It’s super rewarding seeing the students’ faces after having been away for so long.
“The students super excited, and it’s fun to have them guess who we are (because staff members are wearing masks to stay safe)” Gonzalez adds. “After they realize who we are, it’s nice to catch up with them.”
The party bus is just one way UCPCC staff is shifting how we operate and still maintain a consistent program for our students.
Mercado says staff members work together to put activity packets that tie into a theme for videos that are posted on UCPCC’s Facebook page daily.
Staff members are also video-chatting, messaging and making phone calls to students every day. And they are offering mobile classroom opportunities for the families interested and bringing cooking class to students via UCPCC's own “Meals on Wheels.”
“I've never been more proud of my staff and their willingness to contribute ideas, solutions to problems and their understanding throughout the last couple months and all of the changes being thrown their way,” Mercado says.