Birthday parties are an integral part of growing up. They’re a chance to be special for a day, spend time with friends, eat fun food and of course, get presents. But for some children whose parents are struggling with homelessness, a birthday celebration can be pushed to the bottom of the priority list.
For the nearly 50 children (on average) living at the Volunteers of America (VOA) Reno Family Shelter, a birthday party is something that would most likely not happen without a little help from the community. That’s why VOA created its Brightening Birthdays initiative, serving shelter residents in Northern Nevada and Northern California.
Volunteers of America
The Northern California & Northern Nevada affiliate of VOA is one of the largest providers of social services in the region, operating more than 40 programs including housing, employment services, substance abuse and recovery services to families, individuals, veterans, seniors and youth.
Its 108-bed family shelter is one of three shelters located at the City of Reno Community Assistance Center. Featuring 21 units for adults and children, and six rooms for pregnant women in their third trimester, or who have babies aged two and younger, the family shelter provides individual case management, including employment and housing referrals.
The Importance of Celebration
“Every child deserves to be celebrated on their birthday,” says VOA Regional Development Director Linda Grace. “A birthday party provides some sort of normalcy in their lives.”
This is why VOA asks members of the community to host a birthday party each month. While all families living in the shelter are invited, a spotlight is placed on the children who have birthdays that month. The children, who range in age from infants to 18, are serenaded with the Happy Birthday song, enjoy birthday treats, play games with the other families and each receive a gift selected especially for them.
Once a month, local businesses, groups and non-profit organizations sign up to host a birthday party in the shelter’s community room. They’re responsible for providing the games, food, party favors (if they desire) and gifts for each child who has a birthday that month. One thing they don’t need to worry about is dessert. The sponsoring organization just needs to let them know the party theme and Eldorado Resort Casino’s expert bakers provide specially made, beautiful and delicious cupcakes for every monthly party.
For gifts, the Family Shelters accept only new, unused and unopened toys which are appropriate for children who may not have access to a computer, yard, bathtub, oven or windows/sills of their own. If a gift requires batteries, they need to be included.
While gift cards are practical, Grace says they prefer actual gifts for the parties. “We call them up front, sing to them and give them a gift selected especially for them,” she says. “Most of them are grinning from ear to ear as they get to be celebrated and made to feel special.”
Junior League’s Commitment to Local Families
The Junior League of Reno (JLR) hosts two birthday parties a year, usually in the spring and fall. JLR Director of Community Impact Renay Rickman says they selected VOA as one of their giving opportunities because of their focus on women and children. “There’s just so much need there,” she says. “Many people have families or support systems to help them through the hard times, but that’s what’s missing [with these families]. They don’t have a support system.”
While the VOA provides much of the support the families need, they rely on the community for help with the celebrations.
Members of JLR often bring their kids and other family members to help decorate and pass out gifts. “While it might seem like just a little birthday party, it’s a way to make a great impact,” Rickman says. “I’ve never seen such an appreciative group.
While it does feel good to give back with parties, the experience is a little bittersweet. “I always shed a tear when I leave,” Rickman says. "It’s definitely heart-breaking to see these kids, but this is one of my favorite things the Junior League does.”
While the birthday parties tend to get booked up early, there is plenty of opportunity for other kinds of celebration at the VOA Family Shelter. JLR members host Valentine’s Day parties and baby showers, among others.
Grace also suggests family game nights, crafting parties and other events that families can look forward to. “The people who are sponsoring these parties create positive childhood memories that will hopefully last a lifetime,” she says.
For more information on VOA and their programs in Northern Nevada, visit www.voa-ncnn.org. If you’d like to help local families celebrate in any way, contact Grace at (775) 327-4100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.