October 31, 2014
   
Every Child Deserves a Birthday Party

By Andrea Decof

One wintry day in 2002, three women doing volunteer work in a homeless shelter discovered that children living in shelters didn’t celebrate, and sometimes didn’t even know when they had, birthdays – a discovery that led to the founding of Birthday Wishes, Inc.

Knowing that birthdays were too important to be overlooked, the three friends formulated a plan and came up with an NPO to make birthday parties for children living in shelters. And because everybody loves birthday parties, the idea has taken off. Last year Birthday Wishes, Inc., based in Waltham, celebrated birthdays for 450 children in Massachusetts shelters, and is about to go national.

Community Relations Director Melanie Guerra says they started with modest goals. “The founders discovered that homeless parents were unable to make parties or buy presents, and the shelters had neither the staff nor the resources to help out. They wanted to help the kids living in the shelter they worked in, so they started throwing monthly birthday parties.”

Soon, mostly by “tremendous word of mouth,” they had so many offers of help from kids, adults, and volunteer groups that they started arranging parties in other shelters. Birthday Wishes now serves 33 shelters around the state, throwing parties for 450 to 500 homeless children a year.

A Surge of Volunteers

“Girl scouts, boy scouts, moms and their kids, church groups, retirees, even Army reservists wanted to help,” says Melanie. Soon corporate groups also were getting involved, with toy drives, in-kind donations, and recruiting fairs. Local companies New Balance and Symantec have organized their employees to help Birthday Wishes run parties.

“Sometimes a new volunteer will call and say, ‘There’s a shelter down the street I’d like to work in.’ Sometimes a shelter will contact us directly. Or people call us and we’ll match them up with a shelter. Up to now we’ve done very little outreach, and we currently have about 800 volunteers,” Melanie says, clearly amazed.

Today founders Lisa Vasiloff and Carol Zwanger share the workload, one handling grant writing, another the accounting. These days they’re doing “a lot of grant writing,” and have received grants from organizations like the Ronald McDonald Foundation, the Milagros Foundation, and Symantec.

Melanie, currently the only paid employee, works half time on marketing, fundraising, special events, and the “nuts and bolts.” She says, “My focus is on recruiting volunteers. But we need to raise more money to expand our programs.” As the NPO grows, “everyone is putting in more hours.”

Participating and sign-up are easy. On the Birthday Wishes website, volunteers sign up on a monthly basis to sponsor a party, bring a cake, or provide goody bags. “The organized groups are great,” says Melanie. “Kid Korps of Wrentham is sponsoring parties at a local shelter for a year. And a women’s group in Westford is hosting four parties a month for kids at a Lowell shelter.” Volunteers can help out one time or on an ongoing basis, but Melanie says, “Many people get hooked and stay on.”

Birthday Wishes is a great way for parents to teach their children about helping others, she notes. Kids often want to donate their toys to a shelter party, or ask their own birthday guests to bring gifts for a shelter instead of them. “We get a lot of toys and paper goods donated that way,” says Melanie. And, she notes, the kids love hosting parties with their parents.

Raising the Organization’s Profile

With good word of mouth comes publicity, and Birthday Wishes has been featured on Channel 5’s “Chronicle” and “American Voices,” a radio talk show on Sirius, as well as in local news articles. The organization is also listed on large volunteer sites like United Way’s Volunteer Solutions and Volunteer Match.org that give additional exposure.

With her marketing background, Melanie has found some innovative ways to raise Birthday Wishes’ profile. She participates in volunteer fairs at local companies, has organized a big yard sale fundraiser, and held a teddy bear auction on Ebay to raise funds. “A lot of people discovered us that way,” she says.

Working local volunteer fairs and holding the yard sale “connected us with many new volunteers, who then passed on our information to their companies” in a happy chain reaction, she reports. Melanie is looking to expand fundraising with more adult-oriented events, in addition to family fare like film fests and bowling parties.

Following the national exposure they’ve received, Melanie reports they’ve had an “overwhelming response” from people around the country wanting to start new chapters of Birthday Wishes. They are currently preparing to test a franchise in Atlanta, working with a local attorney to develop a program and duplicate the format. If this test run is successful, she says, many other cities are eager to sign up.

If the program’s success can be measured, Melanie says, it’s in the numbers. “How many kids we reach, how many shelters we serve. Two years ago, we were serving five shelters. Today we have 33,” she reports proudly. “In six months in 2005, we doubled the number of kids we served.” Other measures of success: Birthday Wishes has outgrown its current space and is moving into larger quarters in a Newton church. They’re also recruiting new board members.

“Feedback is key to our success,” she continues. “We know we’re doing well when we get positive feedback from the shelters and the volunteers. We give them surveys to fill out, and talk to the volunteers to see how they’re doing. So far, everything is running smoothly.”

To learn more about Birthday Wishes, Inc., click on http://www.birthdaywishes.org/.

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