Birthday Wishes 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, it occurred to the trio - as they attended one of their own children’s birthday parties - that at the shelters, children’s birthdays often came and went uncelebrated. Their subsequent research indicated that no organizations existed exclusively to provide birthday parties to children living in homeless shelters. After speaking with local shelters and state advocacy groups, they found that most homeless shelters do not have the personnel or resources necessary to hold birthday parties for the children who stay there. Furthermore, the parent (usually a mom) is often unable, both economically and emotionally, to organize a party for her child. Some parents, embarrassed that they don’t have money for cakes and presents, don’t even tell their children that they have a birthday. For homeless children, birthday parties are a luxury that neither the parent nor the shelter can afford.
Yet a birthday is an important event in the life of a child, and Birthday Wishes was founded on the belief that every child, regardless of their living situation, should have their birthday recognized and celebrated. Birthday Wishes has found that something as simple and ‘normal’ as a birthday party has the power to make these children feel both special, and, perhaps more important, like a “regular kid”.
The first parties were held at the Second Step shelter in Newton, MA. Within a few months, 8 more shelters were added, and within three years growth had doubled. Today Birthday Wishes serves more than 185 shelters and transitional living facilities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island, New York. Our goal is to provide birthday parties to all homeless children in Massachusetts and to make our model available to homeless family programs nationwide.
The rapid and continued growth of Birthday Wishes is due in large part to community involvement. Everyone can relate to the importance of a birthday, and this has meant much grass-roots support. Birthday Wishes volunteers number in the thousands and include teens, adults and children participating as individuals or as part of a family, scout troop, church group, sports team, or school program. These volunteers are a diverse group representing over scores of communities in Massachusetts and range in age from young children to senior citizens. Volunteers help to provide the party supplies needed for monthly parties and, most importantly, attend and help run the birthday parties. The various ways in which volunteers can contribute allow for many levels of participation and provide a wonderful opportunity for families to volunteer together.