Friends participated in a good-bye parade past the home of the Wheaton/Joseph family, who moved out of Forest Park after 14 years in town. | Photo by Betty Alzamora

“Life isn’t normal now, but we have to find ways to be connected as a village, as a community, as a society.”

 Forest Park resident Betty Alzamora has been taking photos of drive-by parties, documenting this new way that people are celebrating each other while remaining appropriately distant.

When Nathalie Wheaton and Benn Joseph and their daughters Sophie and Solenn moved out of town after 14 years in Forest Park, friends organized a parade of cars to drive past their house to say goodbye. Balloons flew out of car windows and people held up signs and honked their horns.

It was relatively early in the pandemic’s stay-at-home and distancing requirements – April 14 – and for people participating it seemed like a novel idea.

Resident Julianne Bonwit organized the drive-by for Wheaton and Joseph and their family and participated, blowing a whistle from her van while her two children cheered out the windows.

“Normally, we would have had a big party for them,” said Bonwit. “But we couldn’t do that because of distancing requirements and safety.” To really create the party feel, Bonwit ordered a rainbow balloon arrangement from Lantern Haus to decorate the front porch.

“I wanted to organize something to just let them know that we love them and will miss them,” said Bonwit.

Now, when the possibility of having an “in person” party seems almost alien, drive-by parties have become the go-to way to celebrate.

For Alzamora, an amateur photographer, capturing these parties – these moments – is important for several reasons.

“It’s a record of something,” said Alzamora. “It’s important to remember what it was like.” On Facebook, in a year when it comes up as an “On this day” memory, it will be interesting to look back, to actually visually see how things are right now.

“I’m capturing these moments for posterity,” added Alzamora. “And I’m capturing these moments because they show that, despite challenges, we can be happy.”

Alzamora doesn’t love the term “socially distant.”

“We do have to be physically distant right now,” she said. “But I have the choice not to be socially distant. We need to make active choices to remain connected.”

And these parties are one way to do that.

Bonwit’s own daughter celebrated her 6th birthday on May 6 – a golden birthday. Evangeline had been talking about and planning her celebration since last year. She’d met new friends in kindergarten, and when she found out a party wasn’t going to be possible this year, she was disappointed.

“But we wanted to do something special for her,” said Bonwit. So she and her husband, Andy Bonwit, turned to the community. They asked the fire department if it would be possible for a fire truck to come past the house. They called on friends and neighbors to drive by the house at the same time, parade-style. And they reached out to a Proviso East student who babysits for Evangeline and her older brother Sam, asking if he and some fellow band members would play something outside their house.

“It was wonderful,” said Bonwit. “Evangeline was smiling and screaming the whole time.”

Alzamora said one of the things she sees when photographing events like these is joy on people’s faces – not just the person being celebrated, but those participating in the experience too.

“Doing things like this allows us to step out of the grind of anxiety,” she said. “We’re provided with moments when we can step away from fear.”

Because there is fear. And there’s definitely uncertainty. And that, said Alzamora, is something she’ll probably document too eventually.

“People are losing jobs. Food security may become an issue. There’s an undercurrent of that already in Forest Park.” To help? “We need to make sure that we remind ourselves to be happy in the moment,” she said.

“There can be all this happiness in the midst of uncertainty, when the world is burning down. When society is suffering deaths and unemployment and fear.”

And it gives people something to do, something to put on their calendars, something to break up what has become, for a lot of individuals, a day-to-day monotony.

“It lets us say that on that particular day, something happened,” said Alzamora. “It’s a tangible way to look out for each other in such a spontaneous and loving way. We need to celebrate where possible because this is the way things will be for a long time.”

Bonwit expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s such a great way to honor friends, to connect in some way.”

Sam Petersen recently turned 12. His mother, Rina Petersen, organized friends to drive-by and honk and wave for his birthday, including Bonwit cheering and directing traffic with her whistle.

“I wanted to create a memory, a birthday for him to remember, a COVID birthday,” said Petersen. “It was so fun to see people just drive by and honk.” The event, she said, was filled with “positive energy.”

For Sam, the birthday celebration was not at all like a typical party.

“If there was no COVID, I’d invite friends over and just chill out,” said Sam. “Maybe play games.” He said the drive-by surprised him.

His parents, Rina and Todd Petersen videotaped the experience, and Rina said watching the video was fun too.

“In the video, I can hear how happy I was,” said Rina. “I think I had more fun than Sam. I was just touched by how people would get in the car, drive by and honk. That is so sweet. It’s like being a recipient of so much love.”

She had so much fun that she thinks it could be a permanent change to the way people celebrate: “I think everyone should experience a honking birthday party even if their birthday is after quarantine,” Rina said.

Bonwit, who is already known for her whistle during parade parties, said she sometimes wears the whistle around her neck when she’s going for a walk with the kids, just so she can whistle at people they know.

As for the parade parties? She said she’s already looking forward to the next one, and she’s willing to help friends plan one.

“They help keep everyone’s spirit up and keep us connected as a community,” said Bonwit. “It’s such a happy thing.”