ROANOKE, Va. -- The pandemic didn’t allow Debra Ferrell to gather with her whole family for her birthday. So instead, she celebrated the day by giving back - with 53 gifts from her heart.
Ferrell went on social media and asked people for suggestions on acts of kindness that she could perform for others during her birth month, one for every year that she’s been alive.
“It’s one of the hardest times in my history, so I figured why not make other people smile,” said Ferrell, who is from Roanoke, Virginia.
The requests for her Oct. 4 birthday arrived from across the U.S.: Parents who hoped for words of encouragement for their kids on their first year of virtual school. A woman who wished for a gift basket for her fiancé, a doctor at a hospital’s COVID-19 unit. A friend of a family in Minnesota that lost their 4-year-old to cancer, who wanted them to feel that they were not alone.
For them, Ferrell found a memorial wind chime with a note on the clapper that says, “When you hear the wind, I am with you.”
“We just felt like that was appropriate to send to them with a letter about, you know, that someone hears and someone is there all the way from Roanoke, Virginia," Ferrell said. "We just want you to know someone cares.”
This is not the first time she has shown her instinct for caring. On her birthday in 2014, she started “Love With Skin On,” an organization that she runs with family and friends. According to its Facebook page, the group aims to “share tangible acts of love and kindness.”
Its motto? “Be Love. Do Stuff.”
“I know that might sound cheesy, but it’s just one of my favorite things to do,” said Ferrell, who works as a resident service coordinator at a retirement community. “I just feel that if we live our life trying to make other people smile, I’m the one who gets the most out of it.”
Sometimes that includes taking donations of children’s books for hospital waiting rooms, or leaving teddy bears and rubber duckies in random places to brighten strangers' days.
For her birthday, Ferrell also recruited her teenage granddaughters to paint signs with messages such as “Let your awesome out,” “You’re amazing” and "The world needs your light." They planted them in people’s yards.
“One of the things that I see the most is posts about how hard it’s been for everyone, people struggling with sadness and with grief and not able to see their families and not able to worship together, celebrate together, grieve together,” Ferrell said.
“It’s just a very painful time for people, our family included. And I mean, if one random act of a yard sign can make someone smile at this time, then ... it’s more than worth it.”