NxtGov and St. John’s Worked Together to Celebrate Children in the Program for Real Change by Hosting a Birthday Party
By Kelly Joy, NxtGov’s Community Engagement Marketing Chair
In April, NxtGov’s Community Engagement Team worked with members of Project Birthday to throw a joint birthday party for a dozen different children at St. John’s Program for Real Change. St. John’s provides a safe and welcoming environment for women and children who have experienced severe trauma such as domestic violence and homelessness. St. John’s hosts a community of these women and children, and the center provides housing and intensive support in a structured program that lasts between 12 and 18 months for each family. As part of these efforts, St. John’s has community birthday parties every month for all of the children with birthdays in that month.
While preparing to host April’s birthday party at St. John’s, members of the Community Engagement Team planned out a theme, designed activities, collected party supplies and picked out gifts for each of the birthday kids. NxtGov members also reached out to their personal and professional networks and found additional donors who wanted to contribute presents for the children at the party. Mini profiles with the children’s names and interests were sent about each of the kids to the donors ahead of time. This helped the NxtGov members and community donors personalize the gifts for each child to make them feel as happy and well celebrated as possible for their birthdays.
I was so excited to see the profile of the little boy that I matched with and learn more about him. He was in elementary school and his interests included cars, fire trucks and Paw Patrol. I also noticed that his wish list also had a “light jacket” and for a moment my heart sank. My excitement reconciled with the gravity of the situation. I flashed back to the time I asked my mom about what to get a friend’s child. “Kids never ask for clothes for their birthday,” she said. I thought of my mom’s “rule” when I read the request for a jacket next to the list of possible kids’ toys I had expected. In that moment, I saw not only the wishes of a little boy on his birthday, but also a mother’s stress to provide for all the necessities of a growing boy in a challenging time. I was reminded that although St. John’s has a wonderfully supportive program, being there is never a family’s “Plan A.” I don’t know what led to this particular family to go to St. John’s, but I also have to admit that I’m not sure that I can even imagine why. I am a mother to a toddler, and I can’t fathom how much stress I would be under not feeling like we had a stable permanent home to stay at night. Or a safe one. That is the reality of many of the women and children who go to St. John’s. And for the hundreds of others on their waiting list. I couldn’t solve whatever may have led the family to St. John’s, but I could do something to help make a birthday special for a little boy who might already be growing up way too fast.
The day of the birthday party, the Community Engagement Team mobilized to put all of our brainstorming into action. Dozens of balloons were blown up and put on the wall, tables and floor. Volunteers filled up plastic eggs and a piñata with candy, and the presents were all collected and set up along with enough cupcakes for all of the birthday kids and all of the other kids in the community that attended the party – more than 50 in total! Each of the birthday kids had a special name tag to show that it was their birthday, and they looked so happy when they were personally greeted and wished a happy birthday by each of the volunteers. The party flew by with all of the fun activities. The biggest hits with the kids were the egg hunt and piñata. After the party games, everyone gathered in the main room inside to sing happy birthday over cupcakes and watch the birthday boys and girls open presents. An already happy day became a very special one for each of the birthday kids as they opened their presents and saw something from their wish lists. I watched a young boy open up the present I had picked out for him. He unwrapped the jacket first and immediately passed it to his mom. (I couldn’t help but think that my mom continued her streak of being right about everything.) He then opened the Paw Patrol police car and figurines, and I saw the reaction I hoped he would have when opening his birthday present. He then immediately shared the figurines with his younger sister so they could both play together. “Wow,” I reflected for a moment to myself. “Kindness begets kindness.”
Among all the activity, I noticed the kids weren’t the only ones smiling and laughing. I noticed many of the parents also seemed caught up in the fun of the moment seeing their kids so excited to be celebrated. I also looked around and saw all of the smiles on the faces on all of the faces of the volunteers. We all wanted this event to be special for the kids and their families, and it was emotional to see all of our planning and coordinating turn into not only a successful event, but also such a rewarding one for this wonderful group of women and children.