Greater Bostonian: Birthday Wishes

It’s not as basic a need as a roof over your head, but any six-year-old will tell you having a birthday is a big deal.

But for kids who live in homeless shelters it’s a day that’s often overlooked.

A Newton woman is working to change that, bringing birthday parties, and perhaps something more, to thousands of homeless kids.

Stephanie Leydon (@stephanieleydon) introduces us to our latest Greater Bostonian.

If there’s one thing seven-year-old Alias knows well, it’s how to get ready for a party.

Where he lives, there’s a party every month.

Tonight, he’ll be celebrating his little sister Serenity’s first birthday. Like his family, nearly all the party guests live here in this family shelter in Jamaica Plain.  In theory, they stay a year before moving on to more permanent housing.  In reality, homeless shelters are all many of these children have ever known.

“They don’t know having your own bedroom, they don’t know having your own space that’s not shared,” said Torleah Washington, Portis Home Program Director.

And they would likely not know the joy of a birthday party if it weren’t for Lisa Vasiloff.  She was raising her own young sons in Newton, where they went to a lot of birthday parties, and she began to wonder how less fortunate families celebrated their kids’ birthdays.  So she called a local homeless shelter.

“And they said they really didn’t have the resources.  The moms, parents, didn’t have the resources and we asked if we could come in with our families once a month and throw a birthday party,” said Vasiloff.

Thirteen years later, Vasiloff remembers that first party like it was yesterday. 

“Everybody was just so happy. The moms were grateful and happy and relaxed and I thought, wow, this is awesome,” said Vasiloff.

It was the beginning of a non profit called Birthday Wishes.  In the early days, Vasiloff and a couple of friends stashed party supplies in basements and an office in Newton is one of six regional centers that hold supplies for 840 parties a year.

Vasiloff overseas a handful of paid staff, but her organization is powered by hundreds of volunteers from teenagers who wrap presents to people like Mindy Elins, who, each month, coordinates a party at the shelter where Alias and his family are staying.

Kids can count on the parties in a world where change is constant.

“Most of these children go to two to three different schools over the course of a year. Families don’t really have a choice about where they get placed,” said Vasiloff. “For the kids, it’s really scary and you know the parents are distraught.”

But parties change the vibe.   Create a sense of normalcy.  Joy.

“They’re just really excited because it’s about them. There aren’t a lot of times while a child is experiencing homelessness that they’re made to feel special.”

It’s a moment they remember. 

Vasiloff has a folder filled with thank you notes from children and their parents.   She says over the years she sometimes sees the same kids living in different shelters.  But she’s seen success stories, too.  Parents, who once lived in shelters, now volunteer at Birthday Wishes.

These little moments may be doing more than creating memories. Vasiloff says anecdotal evidence suggests sudden bursts of happiness positively impact a child’s social and emotional development. 

And Birthday Wishes has caught the attention of researchers at Boston College who are studying how these parties impact social development.  There is no shortage of opportunity. Thirty-thousand kids will attend a Birthday Wishes party this year.   The program has expanded to Rhode Island and Long Island, New York, but the priority is to reach every family shelter in Massachusetts, where more than 19,000 school age kids are homeless.

Vasiloff plans to continue to grow Birthday Wishes, but her deepest hope is that the need for her organization will disappear.

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