Almost immediately after the governor issued a stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 crisis, impromptu parades popped up.
Friends and family, unable to visit one another or celebrate milestone events hopped in their cars and, sometimes individually and sometimes as a caravan, and paraded past homes, honking horns, waving signs and shouting best wishes.
Brookfield’s response: Hold my beer.
In April, Stevie Ferrari, director of Brookfield Parks and Recreation, pitched to the village’s fire and police departments an initiative to solicit requests from residents wanting to celebrate special events in their lives.
Give us a time and date and occasion, Ferrari thought, and we’ll send a parade of emergency vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring, if requested, to spice up the day.
With police calls plummeting and enforcement priorities shifting due to the stay-at-home order, Police Chief Edward Petrak was game. So was Fire Chief James Adams.
“We weren’t sure how it would go,” said Petrak. “But, within the first week we realized how much people enjoyed it.”
The response was very on-brand for Brookfield.
“It cemented what I already knew: How much these departments work to connect with the community,” Ferrari said. “Brookfield is not a tiny town, but it feels like it.”
In the month and a half since Ferrari started booking requests, police and fire personnel have participated in about 140 such drive-by parades – marking everything from kids’ birthdays to graduation from medical school to retirements and even celebrating cancer in remission.
“Was I surprised? Yes,” Ferrari said. “I thought maybe we’d get a few a week, but then we started getting a few a day, multiple times a week. It’s such a special, unique type of gesture that once you see your friends have one, the neighbors want to have one.”
Those celebrating the milestones weren’t the only ones enjoying the diversion from being cooped up at home all day. Those driving by also got a kick out of it.
“The guys really liked it; it brightened their days,” said Petrak. “When the calls were low, it gave the guys something to look forward to.”
The volume of requests was so heavy, said Petrak, that police tried to limit the number of drive-bys to no more than five a day.
And then, there would be the odd last-minute request, which they also tried to squeeze in – like the parade to welcome home 11-year-old Maxx Kusper from a nearly two- month hospital stay in mid-May.
Other, more complex requests included escorting teachers from Alphabet Learning Center past the homes of their students in Brookfield and leading a parade of students’ families to Hollywood School on May 29 to mark the retirement of longtime teacher Jenny Barhorst.
Perhaps the most touching drive-by request came as a combo celebration of a 14-year-old girl’s birthday and the 94th year of a family member’s life, even though it wasn’t her birthday.
“That one showed, with everything that’s going on, how fitting and appropriate it was,” Ferrari said. “Life is short, we’re gonna do this celebration now.”
There are still a few more drive-bys on the schedule through the end of June, said Ferrari, but last week she announced that she was no longer taking requests. With the state slowly opening up and police calls getting back to normal levels, there’s just not enough time to squeeze in parades.
“I think it’s run its course,” Ferrari said. “I may discuss with the chiefs when there are lower volumes of calls to see if we can do it at another time, but they have their hands full.”