No symbol of the fall season is as cheerfully ubiquitous as the humble pumpkin. But while these carved and painted gourds are often a treasured reminder of beloved family traditions, many people have also turned them into a vehicle for change.
Painted in an array of colors tied to personal stories and particular causes, certain colorful pumpkins impart messages often overlooked around Halloween. Some encourage neighbors to rethink how their holiday festivities can be as inclusive as possible. Others are a tool to jumpstart conversations on conditions that impact communities beyond October — and despite a wide range of causes, which include epilepsy, breast cancer and infertility, it seems that most Americans are using these pumpkins to find common ground far beyond their own neighborhoods, thanks to social media.
Pumpkins have become the heart of many grassroots awareness campaigns and fundraising efforts. Ultimately, they’re a simple way for you and your family to get involved with causes that touch seemingly everyone in your community. Read through some of the most popular campaigns launched over the last decade, and meet the families that are inspiring thousands to create pumpkin-filled displays with purpose.
Of all the colored pumpkins on display, this may be the single most recognizable shade for families trick-or-treating across the nation. The high visibility around teal pumpkins — which have become a symbol of comfort for those facing foodborne allergies — comes after many years of awareness and education efforts by those whose health is threatened by popular Halloween candy and chocolate products. For Priscilla Hernandez, the promise of a fun, family-filled night of meeting neighbors while trick-or-treating ended up dashed when she realized her son Zacky, now 9 years old, had severe aversions to almost every kind of Halloween treat.
Like many others, Zacky showed signs of an overzealous immune system as an infant, developing anaphylactic reactions as a first grader — peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish and legumes proved potentially deadly without the use of an EpiPen. These ingredients, plus milk, eggs, soy and wheat, are all commonplace in candy bowls on All Hallows' Eve; and since one-in-13 American children suffer from a range of sensitivities, it makes sense why Priscilla desperately searched for solutions to keep Zacky away from an impromptu trip to the emergency room.
"At first, it seemed like such a lonely road because nobody that I knew had food allergies, nor their children," says Priscilla, adding that she stumbled upon FARE after seeing a solitary teal pumpkin display while walking an area far from home. That first glance would end up leading her to become a national ambassador for the organization, sharing how she and her husband Zack Munoz have since created an allergen-free safe haven for Zacky in their home in Pasadena, California. "[Zacky's] first Halloween was so anxiety-filled when he was three… because food is the biggest obstacle to this night revolving around candy. But all kids look forward to Halloween, right? The teal campaign changed everything for us."
FARE asks families to provide non-edible treats on Halloween night, alongside displaying a teal pumpkin — but for Priscilla, the real reward is educating her neighbors throughout the fall season. "Almost all of my neighbors have learned about the realities of food allergies as a result of us simply putting up our display, which is really neat," she says. After organizing her first display in 2012, she can't help but notice how many teal pumpkins have cropped up on her street, neighborhood and into the greater Los Angeles area. "It's about inclusion, really… And this is so simple, to put a smile on a child's face on a night that's meant to be memorable, not frightening."
In 2020, purple pumpkins appeared on many porches across the U.S. as a way to help raise safety awareness during the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, Erin Monast wished social media users would choose literally any other kind of pumpkin to signify that a household was adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols, as the Instagram-fueled trend had yet to credit the Purple Pumpkin Project, a fundraising campaign established almost a decade ago by the Epilepsy Foundation. After all, Erin, a Paoli, Pennsylvania local, spent the better part of four years putting together beautiful purple-hued pumpkin displays in October with the help of family, friends, neighbors and the community at large — but now, she's realized those viral purple pumpkin posts from 2020 ended up casting a greater light on epilepsy, and personally, her 10-year-old daughter Reagan.
Diagnosed concurrently with cerebral palsy at age two, Reagan has always navigated living with epilepsy while in classrooms and among her peers. Erin, along with Reagan's father, Travis, pulled educational resources from the Epilepsy Foundation to share with family and friends to learn more about the neurological disorder than just general seizures. But as Reagan's birthday falls in October — and, almost magically, her favorite color is indeed purple — Erin thought of a new way to educate those in Reagan's life about her daughter's journey thus far. "As a family, we had fun painting pumpkins purple, but then I thought, 'If she loves having a pumpkin, other kids can make a pumpkin.' And we can ask our friends and family to start doing this, too," Erin tells Good Housekeeping.
Slowly but surely, painting purple pumpkins became a birthday tradition, as a way to celebrate Reagan while educating new friends and raising awareness. Parties became backyard extravaganzas where Reagan and her friends crafted purple pumpkins, surrounded by Purple Pumpkin Project posters illustrating facts about the disorder to jumpstart conversations with neighbors and guests. "It's not just about painting a pumpkin to take home and display, but using a creative moment to get people to understand the facts about epilepsy and why it's so important to us; why it should be so important to everyone." Reagan's pumpkins all go to their new homes with one of Erin's cards that read: "My pumpkin celebrates everyone living with epilepsy."
Reagan's story has inspired social media users from California to Connecticut to display purple pumpkins, Erin says, as those in her own neighborhood and county have in the past; many are adorned with a lilac "R" before being shared, just one of the 2,000+ on Instagram alone. Online communities are crucial here, as the Epilepsy Foundation aims to raise $35,000 before Halloween, but the virality of the issue may drive medical treatment forward in the future. "It's kind of staggering that more people live with epilepsy than multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Parkinson's and ALS, combined," says Erin, who hopes that children will one day have access to a cure. "When people hear that, that's when [the Purple Pumpkin Project] really clicks."
The world goes pink every October in an effort to educate others about the diagnosis that awaits 1 in 8 American women, per the American Cancer Society. But The Pink Pumpkin Project, a nonprofit based in upstate New York, keeps the conversation going year-round — ultimately encouraging all to schedule annual mammograms while raising awareness.
It started in 2012 when founder Lynn Anzivine gave a pink pumpkin, adorned with a breast cancer ribbon, to a family friend battling breast cancer. This pink pumpkin became the first of many: That year, she sold 25 pumpkins at a benefit, donating $250 to a friend in treatment.
As time went on, Lynn gathered a team of volunteers and looked for other ways to serve "breast cancer fighters" in their 40-mile radius, aptly named the “pink circle.” They started by passing out tote bags, stuffed to the brim with blankets, lumpectomy pillows and other comfort essentials. In 2017, they opened Laurie’s Retreat of Hope, an event space where they pack bags, hold monthly support groups, plan their annual 5K, host a Thanksgiving feast and more — all in honor of Lynn’s sister-in-law, Laurie Anzivine-Ogle, who died of breast cancer in 2007.
The project has successfully expanded, but pumpkins remain at its core; the group relies on the support of their local community to pull off a successful fundraiser each year. Pleasant Valley Greenhouse & Nursery, Inc. donates pumpkins, whereas volunteers donate their time and decorating skills. The Pink Pumpkin Project has sold 8,000 pumpkins in the last 10 years, donating 100% of the proceeds to women and families in their surrounding area.
For Lynn, pink pumpkins are a small way to carry her sister-in-law’s legacy forward. “Laurie was an amazing person whose faith, love and compassion for others radiated throughout her life,” she tells us. “She inspired our mission: ‘Giving hope to fighters, one pumpkin at a time.’”
Today, pink pumpkins extend well beyond The Pink Pumpkin Project’s 40-mile radius. Though they aren't linked to any major charities, there are a number of smaller nonprofits, businesses and medical institutions that use these brightly-hued gourds as part of their annual fundraising efforts. Each October, Baton Rouge General in Louisiana arranges pop-up pink pumpkin fields to remind women to "Protect Their Pumpkins." Others, like Southeastern Med in Massachusetts, follow The Pink Pumpkin Project’s approach and team up with local businesses to sell limited-edition pink pumpkins as a fundraiser.
Some feel that asking children to disclose a medical condition or developmental disorder during the holiday fun is antithetical to Halloween's laid-back joy. It's why many who are on the Autism Spectrum, and their guardians, have pushed back on a viral 2018 grassroots trend that encouraged Autistic individuals to carry blue-colored pumpkin candy buckets. While it's unclear who or which organization came up with the idea, a slew of widely shared social media posts in 2018 and 2019 indicated that blue pumpkins intended to raise awareness about the unique obstacles that those with Autism Spectrum Disorders face at Halloween.
For Meghan Ashburn, mother to 8-year-old identical twins Jay and Nick, trick-or-treating is not a time that her family necessarily wants to be focused on helping neighbors to be more inclusive. "It's not mine or Jay's job to raise awareness in a short interaction like this, or for me to label him; it's my job as a parent to protect [Jay and Nick] and educate others, and that's not something I feel like should be placed on them to do," explains Meghan, a former teacher and current board member of Virginia Beach's Special Education Advisory Committee. In a blog post shared with her "Not an Autism Mom" community, she explains how she works to increase acceptance elsewhere, as Jay is mostly nonspeaking and uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate.
"Instead of relying on others to be kind, I will only take my kids to visit places where I know they'll be welcome," she shared, like "Trunk or Treat" events at their school where the community is already close. "We might even knock on a few of our neighbor's doors, but only the ones who know us personally. There are plenty of safe spaces to choose from that don't involve trusting a stranger with my children."
Rather than focus on trick-or-treating buckets, other families have adapted the idea, instead displaying blue-painted pumpkins on their porch, backyards or lawns. The idea is to signal to families that homeowners have worked to make their environment inclusive to all; free of decorations, lighting or candy that may trigger sensory sensitivities for Autistic individuals, as well as indicate that they're aware conversational communication may be limited. Those who display blue pumpkins aim to kickstart conversations about Autism Spectrum Disorders throughout the season, rather than just on Halloween.
Whether you choose to display one or not, advocates hope the conversation around blue pumpkins pushes households to adapt their homes for a more inclusive Halloween. Relaxed patience is key when interacting with any trick or treater — even those who may seem older or more mature than others — to create a welcoming environment for all, says Jack Scott, M.D., the executive director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at Florida Atlantic University. Families may choose to practice trick-or-treating with Autistic children prior to Halloween, and neighbors can truly help by providing a trusted place to practice if asked, Dr. Scott adds. Focusing on providing a range of Halloween treats, like low-allergy risk items and non-edible treats, can help as well.
"Even if you're not notified in advance, patience is still a great practice for creating an accepting and inclusive space for children," stresses Dr. Scott, who also serves as an advisor to the Autism Society of America, which has published a guide for guardians that advises scoping out their neighborhood, amid other tips.
One October night, while trying to fall asleep, Jennifer Giles was struck with the image of a white pumpkin. To her, this “pure and sweet pumpkin” symbolized her daughter, Madelyn Grace, who she lost at 38 weeks pregnant. The next evening, she spelled out her feelings in a poem, "The White Pumpkin," and shared it on her personal Facebook page. It didn’t take long for her words to extend beyond her circle — her poem racked up nearly 900 comments and 11,000 shares.
The response comforted her: Some people simply tagged their loved ones who could relate, others shared the names of the babies they lost. A select few mentioned that they would put out a white pumpkin on their stoop in honor of Madelyn. As time went on, Jennifer yearned for something tangible to represent her daughter, so she went to Instagram to see if anyone made white pumpkins that she could buy. Her search led her to Jessica Watt, the blogger behind The Happy Home. After exchanging a few hellos over Instagram, the two women learned they had a striking similarity: Jessica, who also struggled with infertility, has a daughter named Madelyn Grace — spelled exactly the same way as Jennifer’s late daughter.
As their long-distance friendship blossomed, they dreamed up The White Pumpkin Project, where they sell wooden pumpkins — all hand-carved, painted and personalized by Jessica — on The Happy Home. To date, they have sold over 80 pumpkins with a portion of the proceeds going to Strongheart, Jennifer’s ministry for “for women who have walked through infertility or loss.”
For Jennifer, her husband, Matt, and their five children (“four children living and one in heaven”), the white pumpkins are an unexpected way to put their love for Madelyn Grace on display each year. But in many ways, they are a reminder of their daughter’s lasting impact: “What can be perceived as a tragedy — and trust me, it is — can also be something that brings good. I’ve seen the good that she’s brought to my family. I’ve seen the good that she’s brought to so many others,” Jessica tells us.
And while white pumpkins aren’t currently tied to a local or national organization, they are a great way to show your support for those affected by pregnancy and infancy loss (October is National Pregnancy and Infancy Loss Awareness Month). Perhaps, as Jessica puts it, setting out white pumpkins will also encourage people to “open up their hearts to one another” on Halloween and beyond.
While it's certainly a joyous holiday for kids, Halloween has also tragically earned a reputation as being one of the deadliest days of the year. In 2019, drunk driving-related accidents killed 41 people on Halloween in the U.S, accounting for 31% of all traffic deaths that night. And that number only multiplies when the holiday falls on a weekend: Friday is the most dangerous night to be out on the streets, followed by Tuesday and Sunday, according to new data by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Crash Report Sampling System.
Like clockwork, officials and volunteers at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) work hard to bring these sad facts to light. They send out urgent messages in conjunction with other state and federal transportation agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, encouraging everyone to designate a sober driver or stay put. And while the nonprofit works tirelessly to spread this message far and wide, some local high schools have previously gone the extra mile to keep their streets safe by organizing red pumpkin campaigns.
Select high schools participating in MADD Rhode Island’s Victim Adoption Program have asked their classmates, neighbors and friends to put out red pumpkins to warn their communities about the dangers of driving while under the influence on Halloween (and the other 364 days of the year). The pumpkins, painted in MADD’s signature red hue, offer a grave reminder: “If you drink, don’t drive. And if you drive, don’t drink,” MADD National President Helen Witty wrote in a statement last year.
There hasn't been a formal red pumpkin campaign since 2018, but Sean Cassidy, Executive Director of MADD Rhode Island, urges anyone — and everyone — to play their part by setting out red pumpkins come Halloween. “Although MADD has helped lower drunk driving deaths by more than 50% since it was founded in 1980, we always welcome any help we can get to continue spreading this life-saving message."
It's not sponsored by a large nonprofit, nor is it as well-known as all the other campaigns on this list, but yellow pumpkin displays may be the most effective at inspiring immediate change. Thinking twice about how you open your home to trick-or-treaters is exactly what Laura Slatter wants you to do after witnessing a traumatic exchange involving her three-year-old son Levi on his first Halloween in 2016.
Diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech (a motor speech disorder that makes it hard to speak), Levi practiced hard to gear up for a night of trick-or-treating alongside his brother, Luke. "It was the first year Levi verbally was able to tell me what he wanted to dress up as; he was excited and I was proud," Laura tells us. "Not long into the night, Levi approached a house where the candy was moved out of reach, and he was prompted multiple times to say 'trick-or-treat'... His attempts that he practiced, [while] he was trying so hard, weren't good enough for this person. Levi walked away with nothing from that house but defeat; I was heartbroken. He sat down and our night ended early."
The following year, Laura was inspired by the burgeoning success of the Teal Pumpkin Project and learned of rumblings of how blue pumpkins were being used — and turning to her own community in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she founded what she calls the Yellow Pumpkin Parade. "I had a thousand yellow trick-or-treat bags printed and distributed to [disabled] kids and foundations in my area, alongside a site with cards and posters to help with awareness," she says, adding that her own neighborhood would soon rethink how they all interact with others on Halloween. "Some children have issues with speech and can't say the words; some have sensory issues and don't want to wear a costume long, or even at all. Others may have motor planning difficulties, and the list goes on."
Rather than focus on a single disorder or medical condition, Laura aimed to establish yellow pumpkins as a reminder to all participating in Halloween events or trick-or-treating to always practice patient kindness. And to put less stock in traditions that may require a conversation or a traditional costume.
Laura says she'd started out by highlighting limitations due to speech apraxia, but quickly realized that her goal was to ensure that any child could participate in neighborhood activities without being slighted. "There is a wide range of disabilities, and I wanted it to help anyone that might need just a little help."
While it's not sponsored by an organization nor has it delved into fundraising yet, the Yellow Pumpkin Parade has branched off to appear in other towns (including Newfoundland, Canada!) over the years, organized by families who were inspired by Laura's social media-driven community. And she's worked directly with the Down Syndrome Association of New Orleans on adjacent local programming.
As a single mom, Laura says the Yellow Pumpkin Parade has taken on a life of its own over the years; sometimes, she feels guilty about where the project has landed. "I didn't know that it would get the response that it did… I wanted to help and didn't know how; I wanted to put yellow pumpkins on store shelves, to raise money, have sponsors and create a nonprofit giving back during other seasons as well."
But Laura's story continues to inspire families to send in notes of how they've adapted their own traditions, even as the pandemic slowed the Yellow Pumpkin Parade's activity down last year — and certainly, Laura's journey will inspire others to think about future projects they may tackle all on their own. "These notes helped me fight for my son, and helped my family at a time I needed all of those stories most."
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