No one RSVP'd to this kid's birthday. Then some strangers showed up and made his day.

Joel Restuccia was turning 8, and he wasn't sure how he wanted to celebrate.

He’s a quiet boy, and he told his stepmom, Nicole Restuccia, that all he wanted for his birthday on May 14 was to go hiking.

Nicole had to stay home with their 13-month-old, Clementine, but Joel got his wish and headed out for a long hike with his dad and grandma in New York’s Minnewaska State Park.


Meanwhile, his stepmom was plotting a surprise party.

“I always make birthdays a big deal,” Nicole says. “It’s the one day a year that is exclusively all about celebrating you.”

Joel and his stepmom have been close from day one, and she couldn’t stand the thought of not throwing a party for him. “The first time I ever met him, he came right over and snuggled up with me on the couch,” Nicole recalls. “From then on, he had my heart.”

Michael, Joel, Clementine, and Nicole Restuccia. Photo by Shannon Fisher, used with permission.

Nicole decided to throw a SWAT-themed surprise party for Joel so he could celebrate with his friends.

“All he talks about is SWAT and cops and anything related,” Nicole says. “He actually dressed up as a SWAT team member for halloween."

The party was set for a week later, and Nicole started inviting friends — in stealth mode, of course.

Joel on Halloween 2015. Photo by Nicole Restuccia, used with permission.

But as the party’s date grew closer, she started to worry that very few of the invitees had RSVP'd to the last-minute celebration.

So Nicole took to Facebook, asking parents in a local moms’ group to bring their kids and join in.

Shannon Fisher, who works at the Emergency Services Center, saw Nicole’s post and called for backup to rescue this birthday party in distress.

Shannon walked into the police department the next day and told them about Joel’s party. “It’s a SWAT-themed birthday party, but no one’s coming,” she said. The response was instant: “We are.”

Photo by Shannon Fisher, used with permission.

On the day of the party, 15 officers from the State Police, the NYPD, and the Sheriff's Office showed up for Joel’s party.

Almost 50 people — parents, kids, officers, and even a K-9 — gathered to celebrate Joel’s eighth birthday. The New Windsor community rallied to make sure one little boy knew how loved he is.

Photo by Shannon Fisher, used with permission.

“He was definitely surprised,” Nicole laughs, “and a little overwhelmed ... he didn’t say much at first.”

She says seeing the big crowd knocked the wind out of her, since she initially worried that no one would show up.

Before long, Joel took off to play with the 20 kids who showed up to what ended up being the coolest birthday party ever.

That night, Joel wouldn’t let go of all the patches and cards his surprise visitors had given him. The police squad even brought real SWAT gear for him to try on.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he slept with them under his pillow,” laughs Nicole.

There are few things in life more magical than a child’s birthday party, but seeing a community show up like they did for Joel? You can’t beat that.

You’d better start planning his ninth birthday party now, Nicole, because this one will be hard to beat!

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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