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
. 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.