Amid coronavirus quarantines, a Latino police officer organizes festive birthday drive-bys

Rima Abdelkader

Staying ahead of the next emergency call is what keeps Fair Lawn, New Jersey, police Officer Luis Vasquez busy. He's also found a creative way to make children smile when their planned birthday gatherings have been canceled because of safety precautions for the coronavirus: a social distancing celebratory drive-by.

"As a police officer, and all my colleagues, I definitely could say that it's one of the most uplifting parts of our days when we could do one of these drive-bys," Vasquez said from Fair Lawn.

When a family reached out to him about their nephew Javen's coming birthday, Vasquez didn't hesitate to call his colleagues and organize a drive-by to wish him well.

Residents could hear loud police sirens and see a parade of flashing lights as Fair Lawn police and the Fair Lawn Ambulance Corps drove by as Javen eagerly waited outside in his wheelchair.

"I'm sure being cooped up in the house, too, for as many hours as he is, you know, he needed to get out for a little bit," Vasquez said.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Javen's mother, Princess Silva, said her sister in the neighboring town of Clifton surprised the family by calling the first responders to do the drive-by for her nephew's 11th birthday.

"We all got our stuff and got him out there as quickly as possible," Silva said.

Silva said that her son has a rare chromosome disorder and that she's taking extra precautions to protect him from any exposure to the virus.

Image: Javen's birthday (Fair Lawn Police Department)

Javen has been homeschooling for the past few weeks and hasn't seen his friends, and the drive-by lifted his spirits.

"I was grateful that people that we don't personally know would do something like that for my son," Silva said.

Vasquez shared the moment on Facebook in a video that has been viewed several thousand times, and he asked any family celebrating a child's birthday while under quarantine to reach out so he could offer the same for them.

"Hopefully, this will help make your child's day a little brighter," he wrote online.

Since that Facebook post on Monday, he and his team have received about 20 or so emails from residents about their children's birthdays.

"I saw how much it meant to Javen, and I said, you know what? We've got to do this for other kids, too, as long as it permits ... with call volumes and stuff like that," Vasquez said.

A heavy toll on the state

New Jersey is second to New York in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 51,027 people having tested positive for the virus and 1,700 deaths, according to the state Health Department.

Officer Vasquez, who is married and has a daughter, 17, and sons ages 12 and 10, feels for children who are doing distance learning from home and missing their friends and extended family.

"I know a lot of important events have been canceled, like weddings, birthdays — and kids might not understand why their birthday parties were canceled," he said.

Vasquez said he and his department learned about another resident's birthday party on social media in March and decided to visit her. The girl's birthday party was canceled because of safety precautions, and they decided to drive by to wish her well.

First responders in other parts of the country are doing the same, like Dunn Loring Volunteer Fire and Rescue in the Virginia suburbs of Washington for Alex's second birthday.

Vasquez said that during this precarious time, he and his colleagues are taking extra precautions while out on assignment answering emergency calls, especially those from people with coronavirus-like symptoms.

"We go on these calls, too, and sometimes we'll have to assist, and we'll have to put on the Tyvek suits and the masks and the gloves and the whole nine yards, and it's like, you know, your heart races," he said.

The pandemic has hit closer to home, too. His 72-year old stepfather, Nick, recently contracted COVID-19, and Vasquez got that crisis call during his shift. His stepfather was recently taken off the ventilator but is still in the hospital.

Vasquez reminded people to continue to sanitize and practice social distancing as the public works to "flatten the curve."

"As a first responder, you just hope that you don't get it, but you know that you're there to help people. That's what we're there to do," he said.

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