Extraordinary Birthdays: Bringing Cheer to DC Metro's Homeless Children

Homelessness seems to be quite the intractable problem in the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth – having increased from 5,757 in January 2007 to 7,748 in January 2014 and having decreased by 450 the following year to 7,298. Washington, DC had a 10-year plan that was supposed to end homelessness in the city by the end of 2014. It didn't. The news, in recent years, has been full of reports about the city tearing down homeless encampments, about synthetic drug use near shelters, about deplorable conditions and food-for-sex scams being perpetrated by shelter staff and most memorably about an 8-year old girl who went missing from the family shelter in early 2014. Homelessness is Hell. There's just no other way to put it.

However, there is at least one organization that is working hard to give some of the many children who experience it in Washington a brief respite from the troubles of homelessness which current DC Mayor Muriel Bowser promises to make “rare, brief and non-recurring”. They are a non-profit called “EXTRAORDINARY BIRTHDAYS”. Born themselves in November 2010, Extraordinary Birthdays has made it their business to bring joy to the lives of over 400 children experiencing homelessness thus far. Founder and executive director Schinnell Leake emphasizes that, with all of the homeless advocates raising their voices for and with homeless parents in order to effect an adequate response to the family homelessness crisis by city officials, EOB has chosen just to focus on bringing joy. No politics. Just joy.

She,along with her associate director Nikiah Wade offer individualized parties to each child who completes another revolution around the sun while in Shelter. There are other non-profits around the country that offer group parties to children celebrating a birthday while in shelter. But for EOB that's just not good enough. To them each child is an individual who deserves individualized recognition. They're not just nameless faces in a crowd. They have individual hopes and dreams – and ways of partying, for that matter. Each child is offered the cake of their choosing, gifts and books. (Hey, we gotta promote learning!)

Here's how it works. A family enters shelter – one of the lowest points in their collective lives. They are asked dozens of questions about their finances, personal facts and the situation that got them there – possibly a very long turn of events. Just when they feel like screaming, “Not another form to fill out!” – you guessed it – they're handed another form. But, lo and behold, it's a different kind of form. This one, like the several they just got through filling out, asks for birth dates – those of the children. But then, instead of asking for the same boring details that the other forms ask for, this one asks about the children's individual preferences – what kind of party they'd like for their birthday, what kind of gifts they'd want and what kind of books they like to read. All of a sudden, the mood in the room changes as the parent(s) realizes that this is about bringing joy. It's the silver lining in their dark cloud.

The shelter staff gathers up these forms and, at the beginning of each month, delivers the forms for children celebrating a birthday that month to EOB. The celebrations are generally held in the last week of the month – one party per birthday child – at least for those 12 years old and younger. (However, with families becoming homeless any and every day of the month, EOB must remain flexible. They've pulled parties together with as little as a week's notice.) The $175.00 or so that go into making each child's birthday feel like the special occasion that it is goes toward creating a party motif that is most becoming of the child, as per the description given by the parent(s). Some girls like Barbie or My Little Pony décor. Some boys prefer a G.I. Joe or a construction worker motif. In any case, attendees get attire to match. The subject of the party gets to invite family and friends – yes even their friends from the shelter. After all, classmates who've not experienced homelessness are not always sympathetic toward those who have. The more mature children – those turning 13 and older – are not given parties; but rather, a cake and a gift card worth $35-50.

Speaking of gifts, we all know that kids will be kids. When asked what they want for their birthday, kids can rattle off lists that would break the bank. Thank God for parents – those parents being called upon by Extraordinary Birthdays to vet their children's choices and narrow them down to those which would be most appropriate given the families' then-current circumstances. Those circumstances, quite naturally include extraordinary security measures which put limits on what EOB can do with the parents for the children. That said, when cameras are allowed, a photo book is made of the party – not to remember homelessness and strife, but to celebrate the kid and celebrate life.

Extraordinary Birthdays does not seek the credit for the joy they bring – though they DO insist on witnessing it. Gifts are given to the parents to give to the children who are encouraged to thank Mom and Dad. Well, in all honesty, it was the parents who conveyed the will of their child to EOB. The “Extraordinary” staff is delighted just to see the joy on the children's faces as they enter a space that was made to their liking with their loved ones gathered around and tear into their gifts with immeasurable anticipation – a much-needed break from the troubles that currently plague their lives.

With homelessness taking a big toll on the child's psyche, Extraordinary Birthdays helps them survive the moment. Schinnell leake has noticed increased happiness and confidence on the part of these kids who have become keenly aware of the downside of life. She also notes that, while many people give to the homeless between Thanksgiving and New Year's, EOB is bringing good cheer all year.

But Schinnell and Nikiah couldn't and wouldn't do it alone. In addition to the staff at a half dozen DC Metropolitan Area shelters, EOB works with many volunteers. After all, who could turn down an opportunity to bring a little sunshine into the darkness being experienced by these little ones??? EOB also partners with So Others Might Eat, the national Center for Children and Families, the Homeless Children's Playtime Project and many more.

As you can well imagine, all of this partying has a business side to it as well. With it often taking about $200 to afford a few hours of happiness to these little ones, it is necessary to solicit donations. I'm sure we can agree that it is money well spent. Much of EOB's funding comes from individuals who donate on-line – some actually preferring to make a more personal donation by baking for the event. (It doesn't have to be either/or. You can do both/and.) Some comes from other non-profits. With the business of partying with tykes and “tweens” (8 to 12 yrs old) taking up so much of their time, EOB didn't place much emphasis on advertising for their first three and a half years. But with them now having five years (and a lot of cake) under their belts, they have countless success stories with which to further promote their work – the work of spreading cheer throughout the year.

This relatively new emphasis has paid off. In 2014 EOB was featured on a segment of Fox 5's “Pay it Forward”. Even so, Schinnell Leake maintains that she can't think of any better way for her to spend her time and “the big pay-off” comes when she turns a little frown upside-down. Maybe that's why she was recently one of two finalists out of an original pool of 6,000 women in Loreal's “Woman of Worth” contest – because she sees that it's worth her time and effort to positively influence tomorrow's change makers today.

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