A Pennsylvania girl was treated to a 15th birthday party by a community built around children of fallen military members that celebrated her and her late father’s legacy.
Mariah Airey was stunned as she and her family were greeted by more than 100 volunteers and fellow Gold Star Children and their families with A Soldier’s Child Foundation, which celebrates the children of military members who died while serving their country.
"So we drove to this industrial building and I was a little creeped out because I didn’t know what was going on," Mariah said, laughing. "They led me to a big room of people and they all said, 'Surprise!' and it was really unexpected and really fun."
Keeping the secret from her daughter proved to be the most difficult part, but the payoff was worth it, Mariah’s mother, Stephanie Airey, told InsideEdition.com.
"It was amazing because just to be able to give her an experience and show her how many people care about her was just something I couldn’t do on my own," Stephanie said. "It’s amazing to have that support for your child and have mentors for them to look up to that are very fun to be around and are also good examples for them to follow."
Mariah first became involved with A Soldier’s Child in 2016, when her mother came across the foundation online. She attended the organization’s summer camp last year and has formed bonds with other children who have lost a parent, which she said has been invaluable as she works through her grief of losing her father, Sr. Airmen Jeremy L. McGraner.
"He passed away when I was 18 months old, and it was a shock,” Mariah said. "I have only heard stories of him and he’s a very caring, kind and considerate person and he always had a smile on his face. He just wanted to do the right thing for everybody and whatever was best for anybody, he would go out of his way to make sure that happens.”
McGraner volunteered to serve in the United States Air Force and became a radar technician. He served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
“I think if you asked anybody that knew him, I don’t think there was enough of him to go around,” Stephanie said. “Everybody was so attracted to him just because of the way he was and I see that very much in her, you know, people are attracted to her because of how much she is like him and I’m glad that she gets that from him.”
With friends and fellow Gold Star Children gathered nearby, Daryl Mackin, the founder and executive director of A Soldier’s Child, read aloud a letter McGraner wrote to Mariah for her first birthday.
"I know you can’t read this right now, but you will be able to one day," McGraner wrote. "I am sorry I’m not there to see it. Even though I can’t be there right now, I want you to know that I am thinking about you. I think about you every day, all day. You are in my every thought and prayer."
Mackin then surprised Mariah with a table full of presents and the assurance that she will be able to go to college debt-free.
"That’s absolutely amazing and takes a bunch of weight off of my shoulders for worrying about the future," said Mariah, who plans to become a criminal profiler and join the Peace Corps.
The organization relies on SignUpGenius, an online planning tool that helps coordinate events and manage their influx of volunteers.
“We only have three staff members in A Soldier’s Child and we’re very reliant on our volunteers," Mackin said.
The organization also relies on corporate sponsors to help facilitate their events through C-CAP, or Compassionate Corporate America Partnerships. Mariah’s surprise was facilitated in part by Owens and Minor.
It’s through SignUpGenius and C-CAP that A Soldier’s Child has been able to reach about 3,000 Gold Star Children who have lost a parent on active duty and fill a much-need void, Mackin said.
“Here’s the truth: We care for orphaned children all over the globe better than anybody, America does — what are we doing for the children of our fallen, those orphaned kids? Not much," he said.
Mackin founded the organization after his neighbor’s son was killed in the line of duty, and the man’s grandson was left without his father.
“You know Daryl often talks about why he started the foundation, which was recognizing that his neighbor’s grandson was not going to have his dad ever plan him a birthday party,” Stephanie said. “So when the package comes for these children, it is as if it has come from their parent that has passed and that is why it is so special.”