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  1. ITV Report

How a schoolkid teased on her second birthday became the Leap Day Lady - with 11,000 supporters worldwide

Raenell Dawn is celebrating her birthday on the day for only the 15th time.
  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

On February 29, 1968, eight-year-old Raenell Dawn was celebrating only her second birthday.

Her teacher asked the class if they knew someone born on this day as a segue into introducing the children to the quadrennial quirk of the Gregorian calendar.

Proudly raising her hand as a so-called Leap Day baby, Raenell would soon come to regret the question.

“I rose my arm and she just clasped her hands and said, ‘oh you poor child’… and I just slumped in my chair,” she told ITV News.

“And the teasing started the very next recess and went on for what seemed to me to be way too long.

“There were kids who sang, ‘you don't get a birthday’ in that sing-song style kids do so well. They said things like, ‘you can't play with us, you're a baby’ or ‘you're only two, how could you know?’”

Raenell's experience on her second birthday has not dampened her enthusiasm for February 29.

It took Raenell several years to understand why her birthday couldn’t be marked on calendars every year like all her friends’ and two sisters’ were.

But her belief that people like her are special would only grow over time – and in 1988 she even founded The Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies, an organisation she says started with 21 people and has now swollen 11,000 worldwide.

The group was formed, she said, to “connect people who share each other’s uniqueness” .

While the group celebrates a birthday shared by around 0.07% of the global population, Raenell says the drawbacks for Leap Day babies can be obvious just minutes after birth.

But it's not all fun and games for Raenell.

“When babies are born this year, somewhere someone will just put an alternative date to February 29 and mark it down as the 28th or March 1,” said Raenell, who has been dubbed 'Leap Year Lady'.

“That’s your very first piece of identification, so it should be accurate. Some people have February 29 on their birth certificate but the 28th on their driver’s licence.

“This has got them into trouble – they could be suspected of a forged driver’s licence.”

Raenell forming her group with fellow Lea Day babies.

Raenell backs this up with her own bizarre experience.

Having just moved to Oregon, she went to have her driver’s licence amended. But when she was asked to fill in her date of birth, the assistant simply wouldn’t believe her.

“She asked me, ‘are you sure that’s your birthday?’ To have to ask someone that question is odd,” she said.

“She would say there are only 28 days in February – I couldn’t believe an adult was there telling me my birthday is not mine.”

“Computers run the world,” she said, but many systems don’t recognise February 29 as a valid date.

It can be difficult to get issues like that fixed. “Who is in charge of managing the dates? Who is in charge of technology for the world?”

Raenell has fun making bears for the big day, complete with their own certificates.

This is where her membership comes in handy.

The key, she says, is to call for changes as and when these problems arise.

One of their members will flag the issue to their local chapter and a group will write to the company or department responsible to lobby for February 29's inclusion.

“This organisation has been going on for 32 years now and I have learned that the way to get it changed is to get back up,” she told ITV News.

“And my back up is the membership, because they can write to them too. When it was just me, I was not doing it very well.”

Hundreds of new members join every Leap year, Raenell says, and she is keen to point out February 29 is for everyone.

“It is an extra day in the year for everyone, so use it wisely, have fun and try to do something good for someone.”

So when do Leap Year babies celebrate their birthday?

Raenell is a 'strict Februarian'.

Typically, people will either celebrate on February 28 or March 1 in the years between February 29.

There isn’t a set alternative, but Raenell calls herself a “strict Februarian” and so considers the 28th to be the appropriate day.

Turning 60 this year, Raenell celebrates only her 15th birthday and told ITV News she intends to have “a lot of fun with it, just like a 15-year-old would”.

Some of her friends point out to her that they sometimes don’t celebrate their birthdays on the actual day itself.

“The point is that they have the option of doing that, we have no choice,” she says.

How do Leap Years actually happen?

Raenell describes February 29 as one of the most important days.

It actually takes the Earth approximately 365.242189 days – or 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds – to orbit the Sun.

This means that without one extra day every four years, we would actually lose six hours in the year.

This may not sound like much, but over a century that would equate to 24 days shaved off our time.

Introduced to the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory XIII to stop Easter Sunday from drifting away from its traditional place in the year, the Leap Year as we know it has been in effect since 1582.

But the concept has been around for two millennia, when Julius Caesar added two extra-long months to the year 46BCE to make up for missed time.

It all begs the question for Raenell: "Why isn’t one of the most important days acknowledged on the calendar when it's the day that keeps all the other days in line with the seasons?"

Does anything special happen on February 29?

Jill Horan took advantage of the leap year tradition by proposing to her unsuspecting boyfriend David Bell in 2004. Credit: PA

It’s the one day of the year where it was traditionally OK for women to get down on one knee, although things have moved on over the decades.

It's a tradition that, so the story goes, was started by St Patrick to appease St Bridget’s complaints, and it spread across the Irish Sea to England and Scotland and still stands today.

On the flip side, it’s considered bad luck to marry on February 29 in Greece – a superstition that seems still dissuade Greeks from tying the knot on Leap Year Day.

Over in the States, a town in Texas, called Anthony, dubbed itself the Leap Year Capital of the World in 1988 and organises festivals to mark the occasion.

Are any famous people born on February 29?

Leapin' It Up: Ja Rule was born on February 29, 1976. Credit: AP

Famous Leap Day babies include rapper Ja-Rule and former Newcastle United footballer Darren Ambrose.

Legendary saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey was born in 1904, while silent screen actress Alice Davenport became a Leap Day baby in 1864.

Adolph Yancy Zeus, born in the early 20th century, has a middle name for each letter of the alphabet and holds the record for the longest name.

His date of birth has been given as February 29, 1904, though there are conflicting reports.