Allison Ijams Sargent writer
It was piñata time. A crowd of children in various stages of dress-up closed in around a helpless paper unicorn. Each one grabbed onto a string protruding from its belly and on the count of—one-two-three!—pulled hard. A rainbow of candy tumbled to the ground. Three girls, two five year-olds and one four year-old, tiny in their Belle, Jasmine, and Cinderella costumes, were full on in the mix. It was their birthday party and it was time to celebrate. Earlier, when they had been presented with their costumes, all of the other children poked into the bags to fetch the wands, the bows, and the gowns. They oohed and aahed appreciatively when the girls emerged clad in their pink princess finery. It got even better when the castle cake emerged. A small round of applause broke out. By the time the favor bags were distributed and the last present was opened, there was an air of exhausted contentment. It was everything a birthday party should be.
This party was typical in every way except for one important difference: it was being held in a homeless shelter in Brookline. Every month this scene is repeated in more than 80 shelters in eastern Massachusetts and beyond, thanks to Newton-based Birthday Wishes, a small non-profit organization with a simple mission: to bring birthday parties to homeless children. “The idea started when a friend of mine was working in a homeless shelter and she knew of a boy who was going to have a birthday but, because he was in a shelter, there wasn’t going to be any kind of celebration or any recognition of it. And that was the beginning, a very simple idea,” says Lisa Vasiloff, executive director of Birthday Wishes. Lisa and two friends, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger, started raising funds for the organization at a grassroots level. “We had wine and cheese parties and invited our friends and got some small donations, maybe $500, and it started growing by word of mouth,” says Vasiloff.
Today Birthday Wishes has three regional offices in Foxboro, Northboro, and in Pawtucket, Rhode Island respectively. It serves more than 1,000 children a year but it still retains its modest feel. All staffers are part time, including Lisa. The headquarters are located in a church where its tiny office space competes with shelves bursting with party supplies, presents, crafts, and decorations. “Most of our money comes from small donations, less than $50, and people will just walk in with donations,” she says, pointing to Target bags stuffed with party supplies.
The intensity of the commitment from volunteers has been a source of ongoing surprise and gratification for Vasiloff as well as for Wellesley resident Susan Haviland, an associate director at Birthday Wishes, who observes, “It is such a simple mission but it so profound in its meaning —not only to the children and the families at the shelter—but to each of the volunteers as well.” Both Vasiloff and Haviland have been heartened to learn that as soon as the monthly online opportunity to volunteer becomes available on the Birthday Wishes Web site, there are individuals who literally wait with their fingers poised over the keyboard to sign up.
The Smiths, a Wellesley family, find themselves among those inspired by Birthday Wishes. Mom Dana Smith has acted as a party coordinator at the Mary Eliza Mahoney shelter in Roxbury for two years. Party coordinators are volunteers who commit to a certain shelter every month. Birthday Wishes arranges for the volunteers and all of the supplies but the coordinator acts as a liaison between the two organizations. Each month Dana brings her 13-year-old son Ryan to help out. “From a parent’s point of view, it is one of the few places that kids can get real hands-on experience. Some of the other volunteer opportunities feel patronizing or just not right, but in this case it’s kids playing with kids,” says Dana. In fact, Ryan and some of his friends who were celebrating bar or bat mitzvahs this year took on Birthday Wishes as an ongoing commitment. Dana thinks that it’s Birthday Wishes’ simple mission that spoke to the kids. “Kids can completely grasp this idea that children want to celebrate their birthday, that it is important to all families that their child feel special on that day,” she says.
At the Mary Eliza Mahoney House where Dana and Ryan volunteer, Barbara Walker, a residential support counselor, echoes this sentiment. “Residents in our shelter are very, very grateful,” she says. “There is no way they could afford to get any of the gifts. They have to make painful choices and that’s where Birthday Wishes comes in.” A typical Birthday Wishes party has some constants: there is always a craft activity, there are always goody bags, there is always a cake, and there are always presents and decorations. But many volunteers go above and beyond to make the day more memorable. For instance, there can be magicians, music and dancing, keepsake photos, anything that a volunteer might want to provide. “It is like a bowl of sunshine,” says Walker, referring to the spirit at the parties. And because the parties have so many different ages and numbers of people, “on ‘party day’, it looks like one big multigenerational family,” says Bill Howland, director of marketing for the Dimock Center, the umbrella organization that sponsors the shelter. Indeed, all members of the family get into the fun. “We didn’t anticipate how much the moms want to be part of the party; they want to do the crafts and get a goody bag too! So now we have a bag with personal toiletries for the moms so they can get a present too,” says Dana. She reflects that this reaction may be because some of these mothers may not have had many parties when they were young. This is certainly true for the current crop of kids in these shelters. “For many, this is the first party they have ever had,” says Vasiloff.
It is this painful reality that sticks in the craw of the volunteers who help at a Birthday Wishes party. “It really makes the kids happy and they don’t have a lot to be happy about. And on their birthday, they can enjoy themselves without having to worry about everything,” says Ryan Smith, who asked that donations be made to Birthday Wishes in lieu of his bar mitzvah presents. Indeed, the explosion of homelessness in Massachusetts over the past five years has driven social service agencies to the breaking point. The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance notes that its caseload rose by 34 percent between January 2008 and January 2009. The January 2009 caseload number represents a 115 percent increase in the past four years alone. Birthday Wishes is also finding it hard to meet all of the demand. “We don’t want to be a national organization but the need landed on our doorstep, and it was knocking really hard,” says Vasiloff. But the organization plans to grow slowly, never losing sight of its mission. Barbara Walker reframes the essential message in another way: “When Birthday Wishes comes, it says to the child, you are not forgotten.