By Jannette J. Witmyer
Special to the AFRO
#AFROcoversCOVID

Wow! Talk about turning a negative into a positive… Not only have folks decided, in spite of COVID-19-ordered social distancing and other restrictions on gatherings, that the show must go on; they’ve also co-opted the term “drive-by” to describe what has quickly become one of the most popular forms of celebration for birthdays, graduations, and other milestones, virtually stripping the term of its negative connotations. 

Hearing it said the first time sounds a little strange and takes some getting used to. After all, it’s well outside of the norm to have a friend invite you to a drive-by being staged at her granny’s house. But, that’s exactly what Shauna K. Henson did, working in cahoots with her cousin Candace Davis Hawkins and mom Karleigh Henson, to create a surprise drive-by celebration for the 90th birthday of family matriarch and well-loved community servant Laura Knight.

“The way it came up was really funny,” Shauna says, laughing as she explains how the idea came to be. “We were sitting there, and Candace was like, ‘What are we going to do for your grandmother’s birthday?,’ and I was like, ‘Hmmm… We should do a drive-by. Oh yeah…’”

Still laughing, she says, “So, the invitation says mobile soirée and drive-by. I was like, ‘I’m not writing drive-by on my grandmother’s 90th birthday…’”

In case you don’t get it, in the times of COVID-19, a “drive-by” involves a festive caravan of vehicles festooned with decorations, parading by the home of an individual to celebrate a life-event or other accomplishment. That is a far cry from the original definition. In the case of Laura Knight’s 90th Birthday Mobile Soirée, the trio of hosts took the concept of drive-by to an even higher level by including the virtual component of Zoom video conferencing, which allowed local friends and relatives unable to attend, as well as those in Texas and Virginia, to participate.

According to Hawkins, deciding to have the event was the easiest part. Keeping it a secret and logistics were the most difficult. “Since it was a surprise, we could not provide instructions to the honoree until several minutes before the event began,” she explains. “Making sure it remained a surprise and having attendees in place was also a challenge.”

She also feels that having a budget and enlisting the aid of vendors to provide key services helps to ensure the event’s success, adding, “I would encourage everyone to start with a budget to focus planning. Ours included decorations, favors, cupcakes, photography, and a meal for the honoree. You need a team with roles identified. Once everyone was in place, things ran smoothly.”

Employing the use of social media was also crucial to the success of the event. While some invitations were made by email and telephone calls, the majority of those invited were notified through a Facebook invitation, which also served as the information center for updates and final instructions. Each member of the planning team had access as an administrator.

When Mrs. Knight, a retired Baltimore City Public Schools social worker, charter member of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women – Baltimore Metropolitan Chapter, and longtime member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc, emerged from her home and was led to the Delta-decorated birthday tent, adorned with flowers, balloons, ribbons and streamers, awaiting her arrival in the driveway, she was totally surprised by the scene of an adoring public, waiting and ready to celebrate her big day. 

Once she donned her Delta-inspired face mask, the festivities commenced. As the procession of decorated vehicles filled with smiling faces and waving arms and hands drove past; music filled the air; Hawkins and a vendor’s assistant distributed favors of small bottles of Sangria and cupcakes; and Henson moved around with the iPad to allow the Zoom attendees to see what was going on. After two passes, the attendees parked and continued the celebration. Everyone wore a mask and practiced social distancing, with most standing at least 12 feet away from the honoree.

Thoroughly pleased with the outcome of their mobile soirée, the cousins feel that they made the best of a not-so-great situation. They are now finalizing plans for a virtual birthday party celebrating Hawkins’ 50th, featuring food, cake, a DJ, ingredients for a drink that come with a mixologist giving instructions on Zoom. 

Both feel that a creative approach to some of the social challenges presented by the COVID-19 is the best. “Either we don’t do anything, or we do something in a ‘grandish’ kind of way that fits all of the restrictions. I think that we found a happy medium for all those things. Don’t skip the celebrations is my thing. You never know what’s going to happen. You never know when this is going to be over,” says Henson. 

Hawkins chimes in, “You have to pivot. If you don’t, then you’re just going to miss out on life. Life is not stopping because of this. You just have to find a way to do life differently, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Laura Knight’s 90th Birthday Mobile Soirée Vendors:

Photographer – Jewel Guy, www.jewelguy.co

Decor – Esther Corbett, Sparkle and Shine Creations

Caterer – Nicole Nichelson

For questions and comments, the writer can be contacted at jjwitwriter@gmail.com.

Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO