Birthdays are big events for most people, but that’s not a given for those who are homeless and have few, if any, resources for life’s luxuries. Knowing that some kids won’t be able to celebrate this special day led three friends to create Birthday Wishes to spread a little joy to young children in homeless shelters.
Having volunteered in several shelters, Lisa Vasiloff, Karen Yahara, and Carol Zwanger realized that the birthdays of kids in shelters often went unnoticed and uncelebrated.
“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,” said Vasiloff. “Such was their shame in not being able to put together a party or afford a cake or a present.”
The trio founded Birthday Wishes in November 2002 with the belief that every child, regardless of their living situation, should have their birthday recognized and celebrated. The parties allow the children to feel special and give them a rare moment in the sun.
The first Birthday Wishes parties were held at the Second Step shelter in Newton, MA. Within a few months, eight more shelters were added, and within three years, growth had doubled. The organization currently serves more than 175 shelters and transitional living facilities in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Long Island, NY.
The Icing on the Cake
Birthday Wishes’ growth is due in large part to community involvement and the spirit of volunteerism that it fosters. Volunteers number in the thousands and include teens, adults, and children participating with their families, scout troops, church groups, sports teams, and school programs.
The organization reached a crossroads in 2006 when Yahara, a member of the founding trio, passed away. But the group’s leaders knew it needed to continue.
“(I)t became clear that staying with this mission was what I was meant to do with my life,” said Vasiloff.
Birthday Wishes volunteers help provide the party supplies needed for monthly parties and, most importantly, attend and assist in running the birthday parties. Most donations are made by families who want to help with money or party supplies.
“Attending one of these parties is a transformative experience,” said Vasiloff. “For two hours, it is unmitigated joy. There are a lot of tears sometimes, but for all the right reasons.”
About HOPE Week
Now in its fifth year, the New York Yankees HOPE Week recognizes individuals and organizations whose acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to the community. Honorees are visited in their communities by Yankee players and staff, and attend the night's game as guests of the team.
The Corporation for National and Community Service partners with the New York Yankees to present each HOPE Week honoree with the President's Volunteer Service Award. The Yankees and CNCS hope the honorees' stories send the message that everyone can serve to make their community a better place.