While Christmas may be the epitome of the kid calendar, Halloween comes in at a very, very close second. When Alicia Shifflett, a mother of four, thought of the children in the hospital at the University of Virginia Health Center who could not trick or treat she knew she had to do something.
“In April, my nephew Owen passed away from T-cell (acute lymphoblastic leukemia),” Shifflett said. “He was diagnosed on April 3 and on April 4 he passed away. We did not have any knowledge; it just came out of nowhere and smacked us in the face. Since then we’ve chosen to live our lives the way we think Owen would want us to.”
Shifflett said Owen Barber, who was 8 when he passed away, loved Halloween, so while driving with her daughter, MyKenzie, to Graves Mountain for the fall festival an idea came to her.
“A lot of people do things for Christmas, but not a lot do it for Halloween,” she said. “Owen’s favorite Halloween show was ‘The Great Pumpkin,’ so we decided to call it the Owen’s Great Pumpkin Project.”
At first, Shifflett thought she’d do it next year, but said she could feel Owen telling her to do it now. She put a post up on Facebook with a goal of 60 pumpkins and within a few days it was fully funded. Each of the 60 pumpkins was filled with more than 30 items each from books to crayons and from bubbles to spider rings.
“I was surprised by the support,” she said. “I didn’t know if we could make it to 50 and then when we very quickly got to 60 I was overwhelmed. We had very generous outpouring from friends and family.”
People gathered on Sunday, Oct. 27 to put the pumpkins together—from family to some of MyKenzie’s fellow pageant queens.
“We sat there and remembered Owen and enjoyed each other’s company while we were doing something good for these kids,” Shifflett said.
She took the pumpkins to UVA on Wednesday, Oct. 30.
“I don’t think they quite knew what was coming,” she said. “I told them what I was doing but when they looked at the back end of my Tahoe they were like ‘wow’.”
Shifflett said it’s definitely something her family wants to do every year. She’s working on a Facebook page for it called Owen’s Great Pumpkin Project and information will be posted to that about how people can help next year. People can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next year, she said she’s aiming for 100 completed pumpkins.
MyKenzie, 10, said she had fun putting the pumpkins together with her family and friends, but it meant a lot to her, too.
“It’s like another piece of him inside of us,” she said.
Rhylie, 12, said the project was a good thing to do and having the family there to help made it more efficient, but he also had fun.
Briarleigh, 3, said she remembered putting books and chapsticks in the pumpkins and said also said she had fun.
Shifflett said they had 30 different sponsors between monetary donations and physical items, including Maybelle’s, the William Monroe High School volleyball team and the Green Valley Book Fair in Harrisonburg.
“A lot of other individuals came through to help it happen,” Shifflett said.
“It meant a lot to be able to honor him in this way. I can’t do it for Owen, so let’s do it for other kids.”