HOPE Week: Birthday Wishes

The Yankees celebrated Birthday Wishes, a group that throws birthday parties for homeless children in an effort to lift their self-esteem and bring joy into their families’ lives, on the fourth day of HOPE Week 2013 (Helping Others Persevere & Excel).

Homeless families with children celebrating birthdays this month were the Yankees’ special guests Thursday at Yankee Stadium. The group arrived at the Gate 2 lobby before visiting the field, entering through the centerfield fence. They walked around the warning track to the Yankees dugout, where they met manager Joe Girardi.

The group then was brought to a where Yankees players Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, David Phelps and bullpen coach Mike Harkey were waiting to surprise them with a birthday party, including live music, games, food and cake.

Partya

For parents and children living in homeless shelters, nothing can be taken for granted. Luxuries are entirely out of reach, and the basics are usually the stuff of dreams. Sometimes, the only things they have are things to look forward to.

That’s where Birthday Wishes comes in. The group was founded in November 2002 by Lisa Vasiloff, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger, three friends and colleagues who wanted to help homeless children build self-esteem.

Having volunteered in several homeless shelters, the trio realized (as they attended one of their own children’s birthday parties) that the birthdays of children living at shelters often went unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Their subsequent research indicated that no organizations existed for the sole purpose of providing birthday parties to these children and that most homeless shelters do not have the personnel or resources to put together a party.

“In speaking to many of the homeless mothers when we started this project, we learned that many wouldn’t even let their younger ones know their birthday was coming up,” Vasiloff said. “Such was their shame in not being able to put together a party or afford a cake or a present.”

Parents are often unable to organize such an event. According to the National Center for Family Homelessness, “many experience anger, self-blame, sadness, fear and hopelessness.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s June 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress says, “a typical homeless family consists of a mother and two children.” The report also notes that more than three out of four adults in homeless families at shelters are women.

The first Birthday Wishes parties were held at the Second Step shelter in Newton, Mass. Within a few months, eight more shelters were added, and within three years, growth had doubled. Birthday Wishes currently serves more than 175 shelters and transitional living facilities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island.

“When Karen passed away in 2006, the organization was at a crossroads,” Vasiloff said. “But for me, the decision was obvious. I was in my mid-40s, and it became clear that staying with this mission was what I was meant to do with my life.”

The rapid and continued growth of Birthday Wishes is due in large part to community involvement and the spirit of volunteerism that it fosters. Everyone can relate to the importance of a birthday, and this has meant a great deal of grassroots support. Volunteers for the organization number in the thousands and include teens, adults and children participating with their families, scout troops, church groups, sports teams and school programs. Volunteers help to provide the party supplies needed for monthly parties and, most importantly, attend and assist in running the birthday parties. Most donations arrive from families who want to help with money or party supplies.

“I feel it’s important that no matter how big we get, we remain a grassroots organization,” Vasiloff said. “To this day, I still enjoy planning and taking part in the parties. To see the looks on the faces of the children and mothers is where you see the difference being made.”

Birthday Wishes believes that every child, regardless of their living situation, should have their birthday recognized and celebrated. The organization has found that something as simple and “normal” as a birthday party has the power to provide validation to these children that they are members of society like any “regular kid.” Often, these parties allow the children to feel special and give them a rare moment in the sun.

“Birthday Wishes provided [my daughter, Abigail] with a great party and a great toy,” said Gabrielle, a resident of the Mary-Eliza Mahoney House in Roxbury, Mass. “Without them, we wouldn’t have had anything.”

“Attending one of these parties is a transformative experience,” Vasiloff said. “For two hours, it is unmitigated joy. There are a lot of tears sometimes, but for all the right reasons.”

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