Shemwells assembling ‘Birthday Boxes’ to honor late son

Marco Shemwell would’ve been 5 on Aug. 25.

He loved Batman; that was his favorite superhero. And if someone asked why Marco would say because Batman helps people.

For such a small person, he had a larger-than-life personality. He was talking all the time, his love and laughter infectious.

That was Marco.

Marco died in September 2018, two days after being hit by an alleged drunken driver near Kroger Field during a University of Kentucky football game.

But even amid tragedy and grief, the Shemwell family found hope, comfort and healing by keeping Marco’s memory alive, creating what they call “Marco Moments” that leave ripples of positive change.

Elizabeth Shemwell, Marco’s mother, said that is the mission of the Marco Shemwell Foundation.

“The biggest reason we wanted to start the foundation was because when Marco passed, and actually while we were still in the hospital with him, so many people from the community, people that we knew, people we did not know, just so many people responded and supported us and just did whatever they could to help us and comfort us and support us and show us love,” Elizabeth said. “And I think the foundation was in direct response to all those people pouring into us. And we were like, ‘There’s no way we’ll ever be able to thank everyone that helped us in our time of need.’”

The Marco Shemwell Foundation started on the path of positive change by sharing their story. Elizabeth said the foundation also works to create safe spaces and opportunities for families to have fun in a secure environment. Then, of course, one of the foundation’s largest missions is to ask others to pay it forward, she said.

As part of their pay it forward mission, the Shemwells have used social media to encourage kindness.

One of their weekly posts includes #MarcoMondays, which are prompts of acts of kindness each week. Maximo, Marco’s brother, said he likes to help come up with those; Benjamin, Marco’s father, said the family usually sits down and talks about the week’s upcoming kindness challenge.

When approaching Maximo’s birthday in July, and knowing Marco’s birthday was soon after, Elizabeth said she had the idea of a “birthday box,” a small kit with all of the minimum essentials for a little celebration.

Elizabeth sat on the idea for a while but one Monday she decided to go for it after talking with her husband. She then posted to the foundation’s Facebook page about the monthlong #MarcoMondayChallenge.

“I just started thinking about his birthday and all the people that were wishing Maximo happy birthday and stuff like that and then getting ready for Marco’s birthday and what that was going to be like emotionally and stuff and … then I remembered the birthday boxes,” Elizabeth said. “And I (thought), ‘Let’s do this. Let’s make it from now until Marco’s birthday. Let’s do this.’”

Between Maximo’s and Marco’s birthdays (July 21-Aug. 25), the Marco Shemwell Foundation is collecting items for Birthday Boxes to go to children who might not otherwise be able to celebrate.

The Shemwells asked the public to donate boxes of cake mix, tubs of frosting, birthday candles, birthday cards and small toys.

There are several drop-off locations in the area, and there are even some as far as Lexington, Henderson, Louisville, Georgetown, Versailles, Nicholasville and Nashville.

In Winchester, interested donors can drop off items at the Marco Shemwell Foundation, 431 Lynnway Drive; The Beauty Bar, 2 Finley Road; Court Street Gifts, 8 Court Street; Flutterby Discovery Center; and Strode Station Elementary School.

“We’ve had people ship stuff to us from Amazon,” Elizabeth said. “It’s way bigger than what we thought it was gonna be. But we’re rolling.”

On Marco’s birthday, Aug. 25, volunteers will have a packing party at Calvary Christian Church in honor of Marco and will spend the day assembling the Birthday Boxes and may even add a few extra surprises, Elizabeth said.

The foundation will then send the Birthday Boxes to organizations and school resource centers to help support families in need.

“Everybody has a birthday,” Elizabeth said. “There will be kids who need something like this. But we didn’t realize how much until after we did it. And we started talking to people in the community that helped families … and they talk about people in the school system that were like, ‘I have students who will have a birthday. And they’ll tell me … And when we asked them, ‘What did you do for your birthday?’ It’s like, ‘Oh, well, nothing because my mom can’t afford to do anything.’ Or ‘I have to wait until my dad gets paid. So we couldn’t do anything until like next week or whatever.’

“There are all these programs that do the backpack program, but there’s nothing specific for birthdays.”

Elizabeth said she also talked to a friend who told a story about a woman who donated $100 for the foundation’s birthday boxes because the woman never celebrated her birthday until she was 45 years old.

“And that was because her family, growing up, they just couldn’t afford to celebrate her birthday,” Elizabeth said. “And so they just never did. And she never celebrated.”

Benjamin said he hopes people donate to the cause.

“I think a lot of times we look inwardly. So I think it’s about thinking of others,” he said.

The goal is to fill at least 1,000 boxes.

“After having conversations with people, once we started doing this, this is something small that could leave a big impact,” Elizabeth said. “What kid doesn’t love telling everybody it’s their birthday and being able to celebrate it. Everybody should be able to celebrate their birthday and have a small present and a card and a cake. At the very least, right?”

Overall, the Shemwells said the process of gathering the Birthday Boxes has been healing.

“Marco’s not going to be here for his birthday,” Elizabeth said. “So for us to know we’re helping so many other people, knowing other kids will be able to celebrate their birthday, that’s just very meaningful to us.”

And in the future, the family said they hope the foundation can continue to spark more Marco Moments, and the birthday boxes is a great start.

“We have a couple of definitions for a Marco Moment, but the simplest way for me to describe it is that it’s just love in action,” Elizabeth said. “… It’s, having that pay it forward mentality, and truly acting on it and doing something good to create a positive ripple …

“Even with our birthday boxes, I think it’s a perfect example of what a Marco Moment is because our idea was just here in Winchester, let’s do something small … collect a couple of items and give back to some of the kids in the schools … and then that ripple effect … it grew and grew, so now we’re going to be able to help a lot more kids …

“It’s just creating a positive ripple by acting in love and kindness. And starting small to make a big impact.”