OKALOOSA ISLAND — Each year, the Healthy Start Community Coalition of Okaloosa and Walton counties offers a helping hand to pregnant women and young families through its aptly named World’s Greatest Baby Shower.


This year though, what likely would have been the biggest shower ever had to be canceled as the coronavirus infiltrated Northwest Florida.


But not even a global pandemic could crush the fighting spirit of Healthy Start Executive Director Ardelle Bush, event coordinator Jordyn Autry or the rest of a staff, whose mission is to ensure the births of healthy babies.


On Thursday, the day the World’s Greatest Baby Shower would have been held, Bush, Autry and the staff showed up an hour early. Dressed in their pink work shirts, they stood at the entrance of the Emerald Coast Convention Center and handed out gift bags to each would-be attendee who dropped by.


"We couldn’t stand the thought of people arriving to no one there, just a sign," Bush said. "It was very emotional. We actually started crying to see people’s disappointment."


This year Healthy Start was anticipating 400 guests, pregnant women and those who had given birth within three months of the shower, and their guests. Each guest typically brings a family member or three.


More than $3,000 worth of gifts had been collected to give away and hundreds of vendors representing fields including educational programs, potential employers, health agencies and baby products, were lined up in support.


"In the true vein of a baby shower we were planning games like The Price Is Right and gift raffles," Bush said.


One lucky mother or mother to be from both Okaloosa and Walton counties was to win the grand prize of a crib and mattress.


Bush said her crew agonized each day as news carried stories of a worsening coronavirus and increases in positive tests for the disease. In the first week of March, COVID-19 found its way to Okaloosa County.


"We knew our vendors would start canceling and our volunteers would start canceling," she said. "Every day we got a little bit more nervous."


Finally, Bush said, "what we had dreaded began happening" when workers and vendors began pulling out. She said she spent a few sleepless, tear-filled nights before finally concluding that cancellation was inevitable.


"Jordyn and I kind of waited on the president’s speech to see what he had to say. Afterward we talked and said, ’Yes, let’s cancel,’ " she said. "Pregnant women, infants and children comprise a very vulnerable population. There were a lot of tears. We put a lot of work and a lot of energy into this."


Although every effort was made to announce the cancellation, Bush said she and the staff realized not everyone would get the word. On Thursday, some 60 people arrived at the Convention Center looking for the World’s Greatest Baby Shower.


Each received a gift bag of goodies.


"They were very pleased we were there to greet them," Bush said.


Bush said shes hopes the Healthy Start Community Coalition of Okaloosa and Walton counties will be able to reschedule the World’s Greatest Baby Shower for a day in May.