Firefighters, police join huge birthday parade for young boy

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Copyright Ashley Johnson

In this April 10, 2020, photo provided by Ashley Johnson, a birthday sign and a cluster of balloons hang on a car window ready for an impromptu, surprise birthday parade for 6-year-old Jessiah Lee, in Arlington, Va. After Jessiah's birthday party was upended due to the coronavirus, his close friend and mentor, Ashley Johnson, recruited the help of a local fire department, the police and dozens of neighbors to give him a birthday celebration. (Ashley Johnson via AP)

Jessiah Lee smiled and watched the parade. His parade.

A fire truck blared its sirens. Police cruisers flashed their lights. Dozens of families in cars decorated with balloons honked horns, raised handmade signs and yelled: “Happy Birthday, Jessiah!”

None of them knew this 6-year-old boy, but they were all there for him on his special day. The surprise drive-by birthday party in an Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood was organized on social media by Ashley Johnson, an accountant who met him while volunteering at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., four years ago.

The relationship did not end after the shelter closed, and Jessiah's family found a home. Johnson took Jessiah to museums, parks and on a trip to New York City for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This year, she wanted to throw him a Lego-themed party — but then, COVID-19 intervened.

“Birthdays are such a big thing at any age,” Johnson said. “It’s such a celebration, life is so fragile, and so I felt I couldn’t accept the defeat of ‘we’ll do nothing.’”

Her idea was inspired by drive-by birthday celebrations that have brought joy to children and adults across the U.S. during the quarantine. She wanted something similar for Jessiah. But bigger.

Recalling his love of firetrucks, she passed by a fire station and asked for help. No response.

Then the day before the day she had planned for Jessiah’s party, the phone rang. A firefighter on the other line — Johnson calls him her angel -- asked if his station could join the parade.