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by Deirdre Wilson
Each year, the Boston Parents Paper honors a person or organization working selflessly to help Massachusetts families with our Family Advocate of the Year award. We review nominations from readers and look at programs that weren’t nominated but deserve consideration just the same.
Past honorees have ranged from two women who helped strengthen families in Boston’s violence-plagued Mission Hill neighborhood to our 2011 winner – Room to Grow – which provides clothing, gear and support to at-risk families with newborns and toddlers.
Family Advocate Awards celebrate the people around us who care so deeply for others, and this year’s honoree happens to have a special talent for celebrations. Birthday Wishes arranges birthday parties for children in homeless shelters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Long Island, N.Y. More than the cake, favors and gifts it provides, Birthday Wishes brings happiness to some special kids and their loving, but challenged families.
Happy Birthday to You
In homeless families across the country, it’s not unusual for parents to keep quiet about a young child’s upcoming birthday. With no money for a cake or gifts, it’s better not to get that child excited about the rituals of fêting another year of life.
But in homeless shelters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Long Island, N.Y., kids and their families mark the occasion with a party, courtesy of Birthday Wishes.
Now in its 10th year, Birthday Wishes is the brainchild of three local moms who were trying to help their own children appreciate the world around them. Co-founder and Executive Director Lisa Vasiloff wanted to teach her two young sons about giving back to people and families in need.
At the Cambridge bookstore she opened with Karen Yahara, Vasiloff expressed frustration one day about the lack of volunteer opportunities for children. Yahara, a mother herself, suggested they create their own volunteer organization – one that their children and others could participate in.
“She was a volunteer at a place for homeless children at that time, and she said she was with them recently and a boy mentioned his birthday was coming up,” Vasiloff says. “She asked him what kind of party he was having, and he wasn’t.
“Birthday parties for homeless kids just weren’t happening. We called around and asked at the shelters. Most kids were not having their birthdays recognized, much less celebrated. If they were young enough, sometimes their moms didn’t even tell them they were having a birthday because they felt so bad about not being able to give them anything.”
And yet, these kids were going to public schools, where their peers were having birthday parties at home or at sports venues or play spaces.
So Vasiloff called The Second Step, a shelter in Newton, and asked if she, Yahara and their families could provide birthday parties to the kids there. They brought in another friend, Carol Zwanger, an accountant Yahara knew in Cambridge. “And the three of us just started doing this. Eventually, our friends and others learned of it and wanted to help,” Vasiloff says.
When The Second Step opened a second shelter, the women provided birthday parties there, as well. Soon, their basements were packed with party supplies and donated gifts, as more people heard of the charity. Birthday Wishes began to grow.
“All of a sudden, we were working with eight shelters,” Vasiloff says.
A Labor of Love for Many
Today, Birthday Wishes is incorporated as a charity and thrives in 165 shelters for families in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island, N.Y., where a woman heard about the program and wrote a heartfelt letter proposing similar parties.
Yahara passed away in 2006, but Vasiloff continues on, along with Zwanger, an associate director, and seven part-time employees who coordinate parties in regional offices stocked with donated supplies.
The organization now also offers “Birthday in a Box” – a package of party supplies and gifts for domestic violence shelters that can’t bring in outside volunteers, or for “scatter” sites for homeless families in motels and other subsidized locations.
In addition, about 120 volunteer “party coordinators” make a yearlong commitment to actually run the birthday parties in homeless shelters.
Once a month, each shelter honors the resident children having birthdays with a party. Birthday Wishes volunteers either run the parties or drop off supplies for shelter staff – a cake with each child’s name on it, party favors, crafts, games, gifts for each birthday child, and goody bags for every guest.
At the St. Ambrose Shelter in Dorchester, which houses 15 families, Birthday Wishes has brought in party supplies for about eight years now. “The kids obviously love it,” shelter Director Rick Freitas says. “The parents enjoy it just as much.
“We had been doing birthday parties on our own, and it was getting difficult to keep up. Sometimes we were having a party every week,” he says. “We decided to go to monthly parties, and we got connected to Birthday Wishes. They provide the cake, the gifts, the party favors – financially, it’s a huge help to us.”
Upcoming parties are posted on Birthday Wishes’ website (www.birthdaywishes.org) with a list of needed items. Among the charity’s top donors are iParty, Hasbro, the Goulston & Storrs law firm, Mullen advertising, BPI production company and Brand Content. Additional supporters include companies whose employees volunteer to staff shelter parties, and school and youth groups.
“What we do just resonates with people so much. Everyone has a birthday. Ten years ago, kids doing community service was not a big deal,” says Vasiloff, whose sons Max, 20, and Paul, 17, still volunteer, along with her husband, Karl. “Now every school has some kind of requirement, and people love that they can come to us and we can provide an opportunity for their kids. Little ones put together goody bags; older kids can help staff a party.
“We also have lots of kids who, for their own birthday parties, ask their friends to bring in donated gifts for our kids,” she says. “It’s really wonderful to see how engaged kids have become.”
Birthday Wishes has received considerable national media attention over the years (from articles in Parents and Family Circle to appearances on NBC Nightly News and the Rachael Ray Show), along with requests to expand. But it clings to its local origins.
“We’re learning that if we want to stay the organization we are, very lean and grassroots, we can’t have that and be a national organization,” Vasiloff says. “We would rather be who we are.”
That’s fine with Rick Freitas and the families at shelters like St. Ambrose. “They’re an incredible group of people,” he says. “We are really lucky to have them.”
Deirdre Wilson is senior editor of the Boston Parents Paper. To donate your time, money, gifts or party supplies, contact Birthday Wishes at P.O. Box 590645, Newton Centre, MA 02459, 866-388-9474; www.birthdaywishes.org.
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