By Sydney Johnson

Military mom and spouse Alisha Shadow is a firm believer that birthdays should always be celebrated.

So when her son Petty Officer 2nd Class Nick Sabater deployed – and she realized he wouldn’t be home to spend his birthday with family for the first time in 23 years – Shadow, also a USO Guam volunteer, knew the perfect way to ensure he would still celebrate his special day: USO Operation Birthday Cake.

A Submarine Birthday Surprise

The 5000th Operation Birthday Cake. | Photo credit USO Pacific

As part of the USO’s mission of keeping service members connected to home no matter where their service takes them, the USO’s Operation Birthday Cake helps service members celebrate their birthdays by delivering them a surprise birthday cake, sent by a loved one. When serving miles away from home, family and friends, receiving a birthday cake on your big day can sometimes make all the difference.

In 2019 alone, USO Pacific centers delivered 2,143 delivered birthday cakes. This summer, USO Japan delivered its 1,000th Operation Birthday Cake and USO Okinawa delivered its 5,000th.

Because of her volunteerism with the USO, Shadow had seen the positive effect of the program on Guam and was determined to deliver the same surprise to her son, who was stationed miles away in Hawaii.

So, Shadow reached out to the USO Hawaii team for help.

“So many of us have experienced her commitment to our mission,” said Pacific Regional Operations Manager Marcie West. “And to be able to provide her the service as a military mom, it just really was a full-circle moment for us.”

Sabater, whose deployed submarine was in port for repairs on his birthday, was on duty that afternoon when his fellow sailors led him to the docks. He had no idea what was waiting for him outside until USO Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Center Operations Specialist Amber Gibbons and Center Operations Manager Melyssa Ortiz appeared.

“Melyssa and I walked up with our USO T-shirts and a big cake and we said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for Nick’ and he was really surprised,” Gibbons said.

Even while hundreds of miles away, Shadow was still able to connect with her son on his birthday and make his day a little more special.

“It was like an extended USO family situation,” said Gibbons. “It had a more special element to it because of the USO connection.”

Delivering Birthday Celebrations to Troops in Guam

Shadow is no stranger to making birthdays special.

During her Navy husband’s first tour in Guam in 2011, Shadow struggled with living so far from home. Eventually, she started volunteering for USO Guam and has been running the Operation Birthday Cake program ever since. Now, bringing a piece of home to others connects Shadow to home as well.

“I love birthdays and celebrations and all of that,” Shadow said. “My family has always been big on that. When I can help a mom or help an uncle, grandfather, sister, whoever, reach out to their family here, it helps me stay connected, too.”

Shadow has delivered about 80 cakes so far in her time with the USO and she does it all from start to finish. When the center receives a request, she personally emails the requesters so they know someone is working on theirs.

Photo credit USO Guam

Alisha Shadow delivers a birthday cake.

She then orders and picks up the cakes; she coordinates with the military leadership for timing and logistics; she delivers the cakes to the service members and then finally sends photos of the event back to the recipients’ loved ones.

Sometimes the Operation Birthday Cake deliveries are easy and sometimes they aren’t.

One memorably challenging operation sent Shadow on a “wild goose chase.” She received the request from a grandfather who only provided the service member’s name and the fact that he was on the island of Guam. After searching and asking around, she discovered which command the service member was attached to. However, his ship was buoyed in the middle of the ocean and the only way to reach it was by a ferry.

After rushing the cake order, missing the ferry due to misinformation, accidentally locking her keys in her car and putting the cake in her friend’s fridge until the next ferry arrived, she had to entrust the cake with a pair of service members boarding the ferry and hope that the cake would make it to the service member on the ship (spoiler alert: it did).

Photo credit USO Guam

Alisha Shadow delivers a birthday cake.

Shadow always goes the extra mile to make service members’ birthdays special no matter the difficulty and she refuses to give up even if the cake isn’t deliverable on their actual birthday.

“I’ll keep trying until about two weeks after their birthday to try to get them scheduled. I don’t give up once the day hits; I’ll try for a week or two after. Even if it’s late, that just makes it more of a surprise,” Shadow said.

Thanks to the dedication of USO staffers, volunteers like Shadow and donors like you, service members can celebrate their milestone days even when they feel most distanced from home.