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Leaping into birthday festivities

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If your birthday happens once every four years, you learn to make the most of it. Just ask the leap year babies among us who will be celebrating big this Feb. 29.

Lauren Stewart-Brunelle, whose daughter Jadah Emily Brunelle is turning 8 – or 2 in leap years – says all the other years are “pretend birthdays” celebrated on Feb. 28 and March 1 with balloons and scavenger hunts but mostly immediate family.

But for her daughter’s first “real” birthday in 2008, “we just made it a little bigger and better,” she says. This year, for her second official birthday, Jadah is choosing between roller skating or a party with rides and games at iT’Z, or maybe even both.

Leap out in style
For information on the Worldwide Leap Year Festival see www.leapyearcapital.com.

This year, people born on Feb. 29 will also celebrate big in southern New Mexico at the annual World Wide Leap Year Festival. Every four years, the twin towns of Anthony, N.M., and Anthony, Texas, mark Feb. 29 with a party first conceived of by resident Mary Ann Brown, who is turning 80 – 20 in leap years – this year.

In 1988, Anthony was named “Leap Year Capital of the World.” Since then, leaplings from as far afield as Germany, Portugal and Mexico have descended on the area every four years.

Leap year babies are a rare group – the chance of being born on Feb. 29 is about 1 in 1,461. When her daughter tells people she is turning 2, they are often perplexed, says Stewart-Brunelle. Many have never heard of leap year birthdays. Leap year kids learn to explain it and gain a good deal of patience waiting for the real day, she says.

The Worldwide Leap Year Festival was temporarily in limbo after the Anthony Chamber of Commerce decided to disassociate from the event last year, saying the chamber did not have the resources to organize it and that the festival did not reflect the chamber’s focus on business and workforce development. The Anthony Lion’s Club has stepped in as the nonprofit sponsor, says Jerry Garland Brown, son of Mary Ann Brown.

But this year the party will last longer than ever, starting Saturday with a car show and craft fair. On Feb. 26, an ice hockey game will feature the El Paso Rhinos versus the Dallas Ice Jets. (Hockey was a natural for the festival because five current or former NHL players were born on leap years, Jerry Brown says.) Other events include a golf tournament, free wine tasting for leap year-born adults and a party on Feb. 29 to re-create the first event in 1988.

Mary Ann Brown hit upon the idea when she spotted a photo of her neighbor, a fellow leapling, in a local newspaper. Brown remembered that she, too, had made it into the newspaper twice because of her birthday.

With that much interest in two leap year ladies, she figured there might be even more from the community. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting, she requested a leap year party and birthday club, hoping the events would draw attention to Anthony.

“I thought, ‘If we were doing something major, they would be talking about our town,’ ” she says.

Her plan worked. On the first year, they celebrated with nine people in her husband’s auto parts store. The event has grown every year since, with at least 100 birthday celebrants turning up in 2008. Volunteers spend the weeks before Feb. 29 fielding calls.

“We get calls from Japan at two in the morning,” says Jerry Brown.

Organizers hope to set a world record for people with the same birthday celebrating together.

Mary Ann Brown says she never felt cheated because her mother always made a cake on the last day of February. But when Feb. 29 rolled around, it was extra special.

“When it was really the day, we always celebrated a little bigger,” she says.

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