Birthdays are a BIG deal in my family. It started when I was a child. My mom would pull out all the stops. She'd make us a requested meal (no matter how evident it was that cheese fries and pancakes didn't go together). The table would be draped with a cross-stitched table cloth she took five years to make. Our names and birth dates were carefully embroidered in our favorite color. We'd open a big stack of wrapped gifts, and mom and dad would talk about the moment we were born.
We also had the best birthday parties. Long before Pinterest, my mom and the birthday child would brainstorm a desired theme and then begin to map out coordinating snacks, crafts, and games. My favorite party was when I was in grade school. The theme was the beach, and yes, it was January in Southern Illinois. My parents loaded the wood stove, filling our home with heat, and my friends arrived in their swimsuits to eat a homemade cake made to look like an island, go "fishing" in the plastic pool we filled in the kitchen, make shell bracelets, and listen to my dad's Beach Boys records.
Once I became a mom, I was determined to carry on the magical traditions with my children. When my first child turned one, I went all out: a pumpkin-themed party. Sixty of our nearest-and-dearest arrived to enjoy painting pumpkins, eating s'mores, and opening gifts. It was a joyous time.
As the years went on and now being a mom to three kids, I realized I wanted their birthdays to not only be a celebration of their lives, but as an opportunity to bless others. After all, though the gifts were special in the moment, the stacks of plastic toys were quickly forgotten about in lieu of playing with friends and siblings. My kids are fortunate to have SO much, so many lovely gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. They really didn't need (or appreciate) more gifts.
About four years ago, we partnered with a local foster care support agency to find a birthday buddy, a child in foster care with an upcoming birthday. Once we had a child's name, age, and wish list, we sent this along with party invitations to our guests. We were reluctant at first, wondering if it were Miss Manners approved to ask guests to forgo buying our children a toy and instead providing a gift for a stranger-child. And really, was it fair to our kids to ask them to give up receiving gifts for themselves and instead collect donated gifts for children they had never met and would never meet?
It turns out, choosing to collect gifts for children in foster care was an excellent decision. The first year, our birthday buddy received four large bags full of gifts: every item on her wish list purchased. The following year, we signed up for two birthday buddies, and again, our guests bought every item on the list. The next year, we took on three birthday buddies, all of whom were young women in their late teens who were preparing to age out of the foster care system and needed items for their first apartments and for their own young children.
Each year we sat our children down and explained to them why giving is so rewarding. While my children have bins and bins of toys, other children have little-to-nothing to their name. Oftentimes, their possessions are hand-me-downs, stored in trash bags as they bounce from foster home to foster home. How cool is it that our party guests were so generous that they chose to share their money, time, and energy to buy a gift for someone who would be thrilled to receive a new item, something that person truly desired to own?
We took our children with us to meet the birthday buddy coordinate and give her the gifts. She gushed over the kids and their generosity. We hope these moments have made an impact on our children's hearts.
W e chose to support this particular organization because our own children were adopted. Being able to use our resources and our own celebration to bring joy to children in care is personal. Currently in the United States, there are over 100,000 children waiting to be adopted into a forever family (according to the Dave Thomas Foundation). Not all children have Pinterest-worthy themed birthday parties and piles of gifts to unwrap. Some of the children requested very simple gifts: sweatshirts for the cool St. Louis winters, measuring cups for the first apartment's kitchen, and gift cards to Wal-Mart.
My children certainly didn't miss the physical gifts they never received, though they instead received a far better gift: knowing that a child in care had a gift (or two or ten) to open on their birthdays, carrying on our family tradition of doing birthdays BIG.