Skip to main content

Unable to have a birthday party due to social distancing, Thomas Brunt, 7, leaves with his father Nick Brunt, centre, as step-mother Katie Crosby looks on before going for a walk to look for birthday signs and well-wishes that neighbours placed on their sidewalks or windows in Dartmouth, N.S. on March 24, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Thomas Brunt’s seventh birthday was supposed to be an epic event by any boyhood standard, with an indoor pool party, plenty of presents and lots of his friends and family around.

But his parents, like thousands of Canadians trying to manage social isolation with young children, didn’t count on a pandemic to interrupt their son’s big day. When it did, forcing the cancellation of his party, their neighbourhood in Dartmouth came to the rescue.

Dozens of people who live around Thomas’s house posted birthday messages for the boy in their front windows Tuesday afternoon, as he drove around in the wet snow with his mother. They decorated their homes with dinosaurs and candles, dragons and knights, turning their community into a drive-by street party.

At a time when play dates, parties and visits to playgrounds are out of the question because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the arm’s-length street party was the best way to show a little kid that his neighbourhood cares about him. And that it’s still okay to have a little fun, even if people can’t be together.

Thomas Brunt, 7, walks with his father Nick Brunt, centre, and mother Jenny Mark to look for well-wishes in the neighbouhood, in Dartmouth, N.S. on March 24, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

One of Thomas’s friends left chocolate chip cookies on a doorstep, while another played him a song on a keyboard through the window. One neighbour put balloons outside, which Thomas’s mother tied to their car as they wound through the streets.

“Everyone was in their windows, waving to him. We were honking our car,” said the boy’s mother, Jenny Mark. “I told him all my birthday memories when I was young have kind of rolled into one. But this one will always be unique. It was special.”

Thomas’s father, Nick Brunt, said the family is just trying to keep things as enjoyable as they can for their children, at a time when there’s nothing normal about life.

“It’s the weirdest of times right now, so we just wanted to make this as fun as we can for the kids,” he said.

“We’ve told [Thomas] it could be weeks before he sees his friends again, because nobody really knows what’s going on with this. I know he was pumped about that pool party, but he’s kept a really tough face on about all of it.”

The “street party” idea came from Thomas’s stepmother Katie Crosby and volunteers quickly stepped forward on the neighbourhood’s Facebook page. Residents of Dartmouth’s Brightwood community had already been placing things in their windows as part of a scavenger hunt for local children since the outbreak began, so it was a natural extension to celebrate a birthday.

There are plans to do it again for other neighbourhood kids until things get back to normal. Some homes also left messages on their doors and windows for a one-year-old boy who recently celebrated his first birthday.

Thomas quickly got into the spirit of things Tuesday, making notes of all the homes that had left him a message. By the end, he was excitedly recording it all in his notebook.

Thomas Brunt, 7, and his family celebrate his birthday at home in Dartmouth, N.S. on March 24, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

“It was almost like when you drive around the neighborhood looking for Christmas lights. We’d be driving, and he’d go, ‘Look, there’s another house!’ ” his mother said.

Neighbours, including some who barely knew the boy, said they just liked the idea and wanted to show their support. Like many neighbourhoods, people here give each other a wide berth now, trying to follow social-distancing recommendations, but they’re still trying to stay connected.

“It’s my community, for one thing, and we look out for each other," said Linda Robertson, a grandmother down the street who posted a birthday sign for Thomas. “It’s pretty hard at that age to understand what’s going on in the world. So I just wanted to wish the little fella a happy birthday.”

Thomas’s two-year-old sister, Lucy, has cystic fibrosis, so his family is being extra cautious about limiting potential exposure to COVID-19. When his parents explained to the boy that his birthday party would have to be postponed, he took it as well as any little kid could. They’ve tried to talk to him about social distancing and why everyone is being so careful right now.

He nodded in agreement, then he asked a pressing question.

“He wanted to know if he would get cake twice,” Ms. Mark said.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect first name for Jenny Mark.