By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Northborough – In a child's life, birthdays are a hallmark event. They represent a milestone eagerly anticipated by youngsters who relish the fanfare surrounding their special day.
The thought of birthdays conjures up images of delicious cakes with mounds of frosting and glowing candles, bouquets of colorful balloons, piles of gifts wrapped with fancy ribbons, and game-filled parties complete with streamers, party hats and goody bags.
While this may paint an accurate picture of birthdays in many homes, for children living in shelters, the reality is much different. Birthdays are often viewed as “just another day” and are likely overlooked or forgotten.
Believing that every child deserves a birthday celebration, friends and colleagues Lisa Vasiloff, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger founded Birthday Wishes. The mission of Birthday Wishes is to provide every child, regardless of living situation, with a birthday party. The nonprofit celebrated its first party in 2002 and in 2010 they served over 12,000 children in more than 150 shelters and scattered site programs. They currently host on-site parties each month at 165 shelters, including 12 in Worcester County. In addition, they provide “Birthday's in a Box” to various places, including motels and domestic violence shelters.
The Central Mass Birthday Wishes office is located in Northborough at 10 Main St. Central Mass Coordinator Julie Stanwood began as a volunteer in the organization and joined the staff three years ago. As a mother of five, she knows just how important birthday parties are in the life of a child. Along with Stanwood, there are 14 party coordinators who plan and attend monthly parties at one of the shelters.
“I love being part of the families” celebration,” Stanwood said, “bringing smiles to all the kids. Every time I show up at a shelter, I am greeted with smiling kids yelling “Party Lady.” It really is a gift that I get to bring such joy to these struggling families and I am thankful to Birthday Wishes for allowing me to be a part of their mission.”
Birthday Wishes has been written about in Parents Magazine and has been featured on both the Rachel Ray show and NBC nightly news. The organization raises awareness through events such as the annual Worcester's Biggest Birthday Party held every March.
On Nov. 6, families throughout Northborough participated in the second annual Luminary Night. The idea was the brainstorm of Associate Director of Birthday Wishes Susan Haviland, who thought that luminaries were a perfect way to represent the candles on a birthday cake. Through lighting luminaries, she suggested, residents will help “keep our [Birthday Wishes”] candles lit.”
In 2010 about 200 families participated in Luminary Night with the number increasing to 650 this year. Luminary kits (with materials to make a dozen luminaries), which were made available through donations from Ikea, Roche Bros, Invensys, Star Market, Invensys Invloved and Teplow Cucurullo Communications, were purchased through the website for $15. At 5 p.m. Nov. 6, along with hundreds of families in communities throughout the state, Birthday Wishes luminaries illuminated front walks and driveways. It was a special way to bring light to the first dark days of winter, while benefiting Birthday Wishes and the children Birthday Wishes serve.
“What better way for those of us living in the safety and comfort of our own homes than to honor and support Birthday Wishes on behalf of the homeless children we serve,” Birthday Wishes Executive Director Lisa Vasiloff said. “Our supporters and our community hope that on this evening the warmth and the glow of the candles will remind families of those less fortunate.”
As part of its community service project, Northborough Brownie Troop 30485 put together 50 goody bags to be used for parties at local shelter parties. The group of third-graders gathered at the home of one of their leaders, Amy Walsh, and got a hands-on lesson in giving back. Following the goody bag preparation the girls went outside and lit a dozen luminaries along the walkway.
According to Stanwood, “Our greatest source of awareness is through our supporters, speaking to neighbors, friends, co-workers and sharing information about our organization with others.”
Birthday Wishes welcomes donations. The biggest needs include: gifts for children under 3 (Little People, Sesame Street etc.), Birthday-themed wrapping paper, goody bag toys, gifts for boys (Legos, Action Figures etc.) and pajamas in all sizes (especially boys size 6 and up). Also, $35 Target gift cards are appreciated for children ages 12 and up.
For more information on Birthday Wishes, visit the website at www.birthdaywishes.org.