THE RECIPE BOX - Local group provides happy birthdays for homeless children

THE RECIPE BOX - Local group provides happy birthdays for homeless children

PAWTUCKET - Imagine today is your birthday and you are 7 years old. Now imagine that the place you call home is a shelter. You do not have your own room with toys, or your own kitchen table where you sit and do homework. Imagine worrying that you will not have a birthday party, or worse that you've never expected such a thing.

This is a reality for many children - homeless children. Defined by Rhode Island's Kids Count factbook as the number of children under age 18 who stayed in homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters or transitional housing facilities in Rhode Island with their families.

"More than 1.6 million children in the U.S. (one in 45) are homeless. Families can become homeless due to lack of affordable housing, unemployment, low-paying jobs, extreme poverty and decreasing government supports," according to their fact sheet. Other causes may include domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse and weakening social support networks.

But it's your birthday, and there are people who care. A program founded in 2002 called "Birthday Wishes" is a grassroots organization that began with a group of three friends, Lisa Vasiloff, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger, who volunteered their time in a local shelter as a way to give back and teach their children the same.

Lisa Vasiloff, originally from Wisconsin, settled in the Boston area with her husband. "I saw how much my kids had and how there was no way for them to compare it," she said. Her kids' birthday parties were totally over the top, Lisa shared.

She, Karen and Carol, as a way of teaching their own children, began volunteering in local shelters in Newton, Mass. "It started as family volunteerism," Lisa said. While there was no one incident that led to "Birthday Wishes" she shared that being at her first shelter birthday party left such an impression.

"I was blown away, it was 10 times more meaningful, "she said. "And there's a science behind it. Kids need to feel special, have joy, have hope," she said. The surprise for her is how much her children gained from the experience. Today, more than half of the volunteers at shelter parties are children.

In Pawtucket, we have a local branch coordinated by Susan Kostas whom I met briefly by accident. She came to The Valley Breeze office one day two weeks ago to pick up several "Birthday In A Box" packages from Deputy Publisher James Quinn. Jamie explained that his son Lucas' Cub Scout pack had assembled them with help from his wife Karen and the other families involved. I was both surprised to learn of the group and very touched by the whole concept. I wanted to know more.

Susan Kostas and I met in her office at 142 Cottage St., where I learned more about a program that is growing here. In a partnership with Hasbro, involving a grant, product donations (i.e. toys, games and new gifts) and Hasbro's volunteer corps, there is a very strong engine for Birthday Wishes RI, she said.

But there are opportunities for everyone to help. Need community service hours? Like to bake? Like to shop? Perhaps your group; church, scouts, sports team, workplace, or friends (like the founders of the program) need a fun way to bond and giveback to the community?

Said Susan, "Each child is made to feel like the most singularly important person (on their special day)." Partly due to a poor economy, she is seeing families stay longer in shelters, despite having a job, parents are oftentimes underemployed and need additional help. Privacy is always respected, especially in domestic violence settings, hence the Birthday In A Box concept where a party comes to you in a box.

Parents are always engaged and asked if they want to help with hosting. Some may be in a place where this is too difficult for them, Susan said. Sometimes it's a cultural difference or a dose of embarrassment is involved. Most shelters have communal kitchens and are outfitted with basics such as eggs and oil for the cake-baking.

Sometimes an outside volunteer will bake a homemade cake and decorating almost always includes sprinkles and confetti. So here's an opportunity for recipe-reading Valley Breeze bakers to share your talents. As for the cakes, Susan bakes with her own 10-year-old daughter Alison, "The more the merrier," she says of the sprinkles, and most times they make a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.

Children's birthday wishes, themes and favorite characters are made known ahead of time to the staff at Birthday Wishes. In a shelter there may be more than one child's special day celebrated at a party but each receives his or her own gifts.      

A party coordinator will come to Susan's office to "pull " a party. Many shelving units are lined with Hasbro toys, games, stuffed animals and trinkets for goody bags, etc. The wheels turn because of the volunteers, she said. They wear jeans and T-shirts, keeping it comfortable, casual and fun.

There are wrapped BIAB packages lined up at the ready for delivery to domestic violence shelters where anonymity and privacy rights are essential. Much of the time a volunteer delivers or pick up items for the parties, or Susan herself will do it, as was the case for her trip to The Valley Breeze.

Susan said, "To a certain extent, it's party planning, high quality, but simple." It is a return to the type of parties families used to have with a few close friends and family, a cake and some games. Founder Lisa Vasiloff wants families to know that when they leave a shelter setting they can do a party for their kids, Susan said. So keeping it simple works.

Part of the reason for not hearing too much about the program was the plan for this grassroots organization to grow methodically and to keep the quality. It has done both. Whether you want to bake, drive, buy party supplies, coordinate a group activity to build birthday boxes or become an onsite party coordinator, there are a myriad of ways for volunteers of all ages to help.

Visit www.birthdaywishes.org to learn more or call Susan Kostas in the Pawtucket office at 886-388-9474, ext. 9.


Birthday In A Box

(BIAB Program)

Ingredients: Box must include:

* 1 cake mix

* 1 frosting

* 1 foil disposable cake pan

* 1 box birthday candles

* 1 tablecloth

* 8 juice boxes

* Small pack paper plates

* Small pack paper napkins

* Pack of spoons or forks

* Pack of party hats,

* Decorations/Filler; streamers, balloons, blowers, masks, birthday banner, etc.

* Extra Fun Items; stickers, jewelry, card gamers, etc.

* Goody bags streamers, horns

* Please put a Post-It note on your box that includes your name and age/gender of the child you prepared a box for.

* Birthday gifts (optional): Provide 3-4 birthday gifts totaling approximately $40. Gifts should be age appropriate, new unused and unwrapped.

Directions:

1. Save an old office supply-style box and wrap the lid and base in a birthday-themed wrapping paper.

2. Party supplies and gifts should be carefully packaged within a wrapped birthday box for each birthday child, so they are able to celebrate their birthday with family and friends.

3. Please adhere to the exact list of items above.

4. Treat each birthday in a box as if it were for your own child's birthday. Have Fun!