It is a priceless moment for Marcia Lovin McGovern to see the happiness and excitement in a child’s face when they receive one of her specially designed birthday cakes.
McGovern volunteers for a grassroots organization called Birthday Dreams. In the past year, McGovern has baked about 30 birthday cakes. She is one of a community of volunteers who bring something that often seems impossible to struggling families and children: A birthday party.
Birthday Dreams was started by two friends, Executive Director Chris Spahn and Director of Operations Shannon Avery.
“After attending the annual Holiday Stockings for Homeless Children event at the Coast Guard facility in 2008, [Shannon and I] were stunned to realize just how many children are homeless in our own community … Research showed us that children who are homeless usually miss out on the birthday party experience," Spahn said. "It was heartbreaking to think that they would have to sit in class and hear other kids talk about the birthday parties, knowing their birthday was coming up … with no hope of a birthday celebration with friends and family.”
Spahn and Avery began by hosting group parties at several shelters for homeless people and quickly found that the community loved the idea. Birthday Dreams was born from the outpouring of community support.
Birthday Dreams is staffed by Spahn, Avery, and an office manager, Andrea Bates. They get additional help from interns and folks from Career Path Services, an organization which helps unemployed people find a path to a regular job.
About 70 volunteers each month assist with deliveries, bake cakes, and help host parties at homeless shelters.
Volunteer Keri Strong has helped as an on-site party volunteer, participated at speaking engagements, worked on the organization’s monthly newsletter, donated auction help and wrapped presents.
“The most rewarding experiences I've had were the times I was on-site at the shelters and participated in the birthdays with the children and families firsthand. The excitement, the joy, the hope, the fellowship. I will never forget it,” she said.
“These families are trying to get back on their feet — they do not have the disposable income to put toward birthday parties for their children. Birthday Dreams fills that void by allowing their children to have a birthday party of their own,” said Kristin Hull, case manager at Mercy Housing Northwest, an affordable housing provider which designates apartments for formerly homeless families.
McGovern, the volunteer who baked 30 cakes, never realized what an impact Birthday Dreams had until she found herself at a function at the YMCA with her husband. A mom who was a YMCA beneficiary approached her.
“Birthday Dreams has had a huge impact on our child’s life. If it was not for Birthday Dreams, he would not have had a birthday, and yet he had a dream birthday with everything included, toys, games party bags, decorations and the cake,” the mother told her.
“You can have a pretty lousy childhood, but you can always have that one special memory that will last a lifetime and always think back of that happy time,” McGovern said.
Birthday Dreams relies on a variety of funding, the majority of which comes from individuals. Along with a few grants, matching funds from companies, and in-kind donations, these monies are used almost entirely for the birthday parties. A small amount is used to pay for two part-time staff and for office rent and utilities.
Key are the partnerships Birthday Dreams has created with other organizations, which donate activities and items to the birthday parties. Volunteers host games, do face painting, make balloon animals and, in summertime, manage snow cone and cotton candy machines.
“Our most exciting party was at Hope Place. [A donor] sponsored the party in memory of her deceased fiancé. Friends brought all of the gifts, the cake, and the funds [were donated] to have horses and ponies at the party for the children to ride. Some of the children had never even had the opportunity to pet a horse, much less ride one. It was a very special day, and a wonderful tribute,” Spahn recalled.
Group parties are held monthly at Hope Place in Seattle, YWCA Family Village in Redmond, Mary’s Place in Seattle, First Place School in Seattle, Mamma’s Hands in North Bend, and the YWCA Passage Point in Maple Valley. The organization partners with over 30 shelters whose clients are the recipients of the Birthday-in-a-Box program.
The YMCA and the Microsoft store in Bellevue also offer party space.
The YWCA's transitional housing made it possible for Daniel, a recently laid off heating and cooling technician, to provide a birthday party for his daughter, Aleah, who was turning 6, Spahn said.
"It was a magical day for Aleah. Her eyes glowed with the wonderment only a child can express from receiving the most amazing pink Schwinn bicycle and making cotton candy with her new friends," Spahn said.
"As awesome as the gifts were, the best gift Aleah received was the belief that her dad was her hero. He didn’t just give up and let her birthday pass without notice. He showed his daughter that regardless of life’s circumstances, the day she was born is a day worth celebrating."
How you can help
• Bake a cake and make deliveries. Spahn stressed that cakes do not have to look professionally decorated and that children are thrilled with whatever they get.
• Volunteer together as a family. Opportunities include helping out at a party at a homeless shelter, decorating and filling goody bags, and hosting a toy drive or party supply drive.
• Hold a fundraiser.
• Volunteer for a leadership position.