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During pandemic, Mary of Nazareth eighth graders collect birthday cards for children in need

Anderson Harlor, left, and Henry Scherer, right, eighth graders at Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, Maryland, led a service project to collect birthday cards for children in need during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Mary of Nazareth School)

At the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic when so many ordinary activities changed or gestures long taken for granted had to be re-imagined, two students at Mary of Nazareth School, Darnestown, decided to keep a centuries-old, thoughtful tradition going – especially for those less fortunate among them.

“After quarantine started, I noticed that many kids were having Zoom parties or birthday parades. Even my dad threw a Zoom birthday party for my mom.  People went out of their way to celebrate those they cared about even though the pandemic had changed everything,” said Anderson Harlor, an eighth grade student at Mary of Nazareth. “It just made me wonder about kids who might not have anyone to organize anything for them – like kids who are homeless or in foster care.”

Harlor said he was inspired when he learned that The Birthday Party Project, a group that hosts birthday parties for kids in homeless shelters or in foster care, could no longer hold such gatherings, but instead were sending birthday party boxes and really needed cards for children. 

“Seeing that inspired me to organize a birthday card drive so those kids can be celebrated on their birthdays despite the pandemic,” he said. 

Anderson Harlor, an eighth grader at Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown,  organized a birthday card drive to help children in need celebrate their birthdays during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Mary of Nazareth School)

Soon after, Harlor and his mom, Mitzi, began reaching out to additional children’s charities that would accept birthday cards for foster children. They found two more organizations which offered to distribute cards to the DC area foster agencies - Comfort Cases, which provides foster kids with special bags in which to pack and carry their belongings and St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, which helps abused or at-risk kids while aiming to keep siblings together. 

Once he knew where to send the cards, Harlor wrote a letter to his Darnestown neighborhood Home Owners’ Association and asked for permission to set up a donation table in the neighborhood. He enlisted the help of his neighbor and Mary of Nazareth School classmate, Henry Scherer, in spreading the word throughout their community, sending out flyers asking for card donations from neighbors. This past summer, on what turned out to be a 100 degree day, Harlor and Scherer set up a contact-free drop off box with the goal of collecting 50 cards in two hours. They exceeded their goal by a large margin.

Henry Scherer, another eighth grader at Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, worked with his classmate and neighbor Anderson Harlor to collect the birthday cards. (Photo courtesy of Mary of Nazareth School)

“We ended up collecting just over 400 cards.  Most were from our neighbors and from the very generous people in Darnestown.  One person told us about someone he knew in foster care who had no birthday parties or childhood pictures.  Others asked about the charities we were donating the cards to.  Some people missed the day of the drive and dropped off cards later that week or left them in my mailbox,” Harlor recalled.  “They really went out of their way to be generous.”

Harlor said he was amazed at how many cards they collected, and it was heartwarming to help needy kids who missed out on birthday celebrations because of the pandemic.  This act of charity, he said, most importantly made him and his friend Henry, feel like they had a positive impact on the lives of others.

“It felt really great to help less fortunate kids still have good or better birthdays than they would have had. But, helping those kids also helped me.  This pandemic hasn’t been easy, and doing something good helped me feel like I didn’t have to just stand by and watch this difficult time.  Even though I’m only an 8th grader, I wanted to do something to make a positive difference and not feel like the pandemic was in control,” he said.  “I think maybe that’s why so many people went out of their way to donate cards.  Maybe it also gave them a chance to feel like we don’t have to let the circumstances control our ability to still do something good.”

They mailed the cards off to the charities, so they did not get to see the happy reactions of the kids when they opened their birthday cards, but they did receive thank you notes with grateful messages of how much their efforts helped the kids.  

“One of the most impressive aspects of this effort was initiative and internal motivation.  This was not an assignment or project associated with a grade, club, or requirement,” said Michael Friel, Mary of Nazareth’s principal.  “Anderson and Henry did this because they wanted to positively impact the lives of others through virtue in action. This is a testament to their parents, teachers, parish, and Mary of Nazareth School.”

Harlor said Mary of Nazareth School instills a deep sense of service in its school community, focusing on social concerns and frequently participating in charitable service projects. 

“It makes you want to help others on your own also. Mary of Nazareth reinforces what my faith has taught me - that helping others is more rewarding than helping yourself,” he said. “And when the world feels low you should try your hardest to make it a better place.”

Looking ahead, Harlor said he hopes the birthday card project can continue in the future post-pandemic, and maybe even on a larger scale – collecting more cards to send to great numbers of kids in need. “Because all kids deserve to feel special on their birthdays,” he said.