The Birthday Party Project Makes Sure Homeless Children Don't Go Uncelebrated for Their Special Day

The little girl was fidgety all day, anticipating the very second her mom would pick her up from school. "It's my birthday party!" Shelmela Robinson's daughter London exclaimed when she finally arrived. "It's my birthday party!" For London, who was turning 5, it would be the first time she'd ever really had one - and it would come with the help of The Birthday Party Project, an Addison-based agency offering celebrations for homeless kids around the country. The Birthday Party Project throws 31 parties monthly in a dozen U.S. markets, including Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It serves 12 locations in North Texas, from Dallas' Ronald McDonald House and Genesis Women's Shelter to Fort Worth's Union Gospel Mission and Samaritan Inn in McKinney. "The impact for a child who is unsheltered and uncelebrated is enormous," said Lara Gaither, the agency's partnerships director. In 2012, founder Paige Chenault, an event planner, was pregnant and thinking about the party she was going to throw for her newborn child. Then, while reading a magazine story about homelessness, she started to wonder whether homeless kids were ever celebrated. Chenault called Family Gateway and offered to throw a party for the shelter's kids, and an idea became reality. Since then, The Birthday Party Project has feted 3,000 birthdays in all, with about 20,000 kids in attendance at the parties. By Thursday night's end, London would be decorating cookies, batting around balloons and opening donated gifts along with seven other kids marking December birthdays at Family Gateway. For Robinson, who's been living at the shelter for several months along with her two daughters, recent years have been rough going. Money has been tight, and for London, birthday celebrations non-existent. "This is a day," Robinson said, "that I know she will remember." ** As many as 100 people live in Family Gateway's 30 rooms on any given day, staying up to 120 days at a time while they work out plans with case directors to reach stability. The families generally live on the edge, from recently divorced single moms to others escaping domestic violence situations and not yet ready to get back on their feet. Some families have undergone medical emergencies, lost jobs or been evicted from their homes. "In most cases something pretty dramatic has happened, and they don't have anything left to fall back on," said Ellen Magnis, the shelter's executive director. If homelessness is traumatic for adults, it's even more so for kids. By the time many families reach Family Gateway, they've been struggling for a while, Magnis said; first they try sleeping on friends' sofas, then in hotels, then maybe their vehicles. "They're in a constant state of stress," she said. "Parents are trying to figure out what they're going to eat, how they're going to get to school. It's damaging to a child's psyche, because they have no stability." Kids are resilient, but these children have fewer opportunities to enjoy what others do - including birthday parties. Like London, some kids served by The Birthday Party Project have never had a birthday party at all; they may not even know anything about blowing out candles or making a wish.  Continue reading...

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