As a kid, Nina Skoke Ito didn’t have many birthday parties. For that, she points to growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, an age without social media.
“My parents didn’t have Pinterest,” she told TODAY with a laugh.
Another reason was that she was born Feb. 29, 1956.
As a leap day baby — or “leapling,” an endearing term many of them use in adulthood — her birthday was a tricky one to navigate. After all, it only came once every four years.
Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, the now-Southern California resident said her parents did throw her a party when she turned 8, but that’s the only one she can remember. Even her 16th birthday, normally a milestone one, Ito has no recollection of celebrating.
“Nowadays kids have a birthday party every year, but when I was young, I didn’t,” she said.
That’s mainly why this year, on the eve of her 64th birthday — her Sweet 16 in leap years — Ito is setting out to do something different. She and dozens of other leaplings of all ages are taking their birthday celebrations to the high seas for a cruise to the Bahamas.
The idea all started on Facebook. Ito is part of several groups for people born on leap day, and in one them called Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies, Karen Tinsley-Sroka, a leapling from Belleville, Illinois, was organizing an elaborate birthday outing for those born on Feb. 29.
“About three years ago, I started doing some research, around the time people started getting active on Facebook,” Tinsley-Sroka told TODAY. As she got more involved in the planning, group members encouraged her to take the reins as lead organizer. In February 2018, she relented, realizing this event was something she really believed in.
“Finally I’m like, ‘OK, this is my calling, maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing,’” she explained.
Meanwhile, around that same time, Ito was exploring options for her birthday celebrations this year. Her husband said he would support whatever she wanted to do, and she took that offer seriously. After all, this is her Sweet 16!
Then, when Tinsley-Sroka started planning the birthday bonanza on a cruise ship, Ito saw her posts in the Facebook group. But details weren't quite set.
Poll after poll posted in the group helped Tinsley-Sroka make some decisions. Eventually, the plan was locked down: A Carnival cruise departing from Port Canaveral, Florida, would host about 230 people, including 76 leap day babies from around the world, on a trip to the Bahamas. A lot of the crowd is made up of family and friends who wanted to join their beloved leaplings on the journey, like Ito's husband of 27 years.
“We have one leapling from Australia coming and another from Sweden,” Tinsley-Sroka said. “We have three coming from the United Kingdom, and I think we have five coming from Canada.”
She added another family is flying down from Alaska to join them.
Her whole life, Tinsley-Sroka said she has only met a handful of fellow leaplings in passing. Leaplings go by their leap day ages with each other, she said, and the ages of those participating in the cruise range from 1 (4 years old) to 19 (76 years old).
“Being born on a leap day, the odds are less than 1%,” she said. “I am so excited to meet other leap year babies.”
That same excitement is shared by Ito on the other side of the country.
“I’m looking forward to (meeting) somebody else who has this birthday,” Ito said. She’s only ever met one other leapling in her life.
Ito already has her Sweet 16 hats, decor and other gear ready to go, purchased last year at the party store, and extras for the four or five other leaplings also turning 16. The travel agent who helped coordinate the whole trip ordered them a birthday cake.
Tinsley-Sroka even coordinated with Carnival Cruise Lines to host a ball in their honor on Saturday afternoon in one of the ship lounges. There will be dancing and attendees are planning to dress up for the event.
“I bought a sparkly top with a lot of sequins,” Ito said, “and I think (the Sweet 16 sash) will match with it!”
Tinsley-Sroka said she hired a photographer to document their trip. A documentary film crew is also coming with them on the journey, led by British videographer Chris Lane, who happens to be a leap day baby himself.
Many cruisers, including Ito, arrived in Port Canaveral on Wednesday night for a little pre-party event at a local restaurant. Before she set out, Ito told TODAY she just wishes to make memories with new friends.
“I hope people learn that it’s a good birthday to have,” she said. “We feel so special. We’re like, ‘It’s the best!’ ... I feel so lucky.”