Students celebrate birthdays of children in homeless shelters across Maine

unnamed-1On a special day once a year, someone turns older, wiser and takes a step forward in their life. This day is otherwise known as a birthday, a day that one usually associates with celebration, presents and happiness. Although some of us may be lucky to celebrate our birthdays in this traditional fashion, children who are not as fortunate may never get to observe their special day in this way, if at all.

Julia Cohen ’15 and Catherine Minahan ’15 are the co-leaders of Birthday Wishes, a volunteer organization run under the Colby Volunteer Center (CVC) that celebrates the birthdays of children at Maine homeless shelters every month. “We throw birthday parties at the homeless shelter. So, every month, however many kids have a birthday in that month, we bring cakes [with the child’s individual names on them], decorations, craft and gifts for them. It’s a really great experience,” Cohen said.

Cohen, an American studies major and creative writing minor, has been involved with Birthday Wishes for many years. “I had to do [Birthday Wishes] for a service project for my bat-mitzvah, but most kids [that] do the service project [only do it once]. But, I loved the organization, and I became very close with the women that started it…. And I really enjoyed it, so I kept going [throughout high school].”

Minahan, an anthropology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies double major, was also involved with Birthday Wishes before coming to Colby. “My freshman year, Colby was undertaking a major campaign to raise money for the building of a new homeless shelter in Waterville.  I knew that this new shelter meant an increase in children and thought it would be a great program to implement in Waterville,” she wrote in an email to the Echo.

Cohen and Minahan founded the Colby branch of the organization during their first year at the College. “As a [freshman] at Colby, I really wanted to bring a volunteer program to Waterville that I had worked with at home. When I reached out to the CVC about starting Birthday Wishes… they assumed that I was working with Julia, a fellow [first year] who was also interested in bringing Birthday Wishes to Maine,” Minahan wrote.

“On the contrary, Julia and I had never met; yet, we shared a passion for this organization. Together, with the outpouring of support from the CVC, our fellow students and some generous faculty members, Julia and I started Birthday Wishes at Colby. Today, four years later as seniors, we are extremely close friends and host birthday parties every month for children living in homeless shelters across Maine,” Minahan continued.

“Catherine and I started the entire program and set it up through the homeless shelter [and the CVC] during our [freshmen year],” Cohen added.

Both Cohen and Minahan expressed how rewarding being a part of Birthday Wishes is. “The actual events [are my favorite part]….When we get there and the kids say, ‘The birthday people are here!’, it’s really cute that they remember us and know that we’re coming every time. They would have had nothing done for their birthdays if we hadn’t done anything. [I don’t think they’re always going to be very appreciative, but they always are],” Cohen said. Minahan’s email mirrored Cohen’s sentiments. “Getting to know Julia and getting to know the kids is my favorite part,” Minahan wrote.

While the events are fun and gratifying, Cohen and Minahan communicated the fact that there are challenges, as well. “The most challenging part is seeing the way the kids live….Just seeing how tough it is for them to grow up [is hard]. They don’t always have role models [to look up to or] help them with their homework, and it’s very sad to watch,” Cohen said.

“[The most challenging part is] funding! Making sure we have all of the necessary supplies for each party, and of course never knowing if the kids will truly like what gifts we pick out,” Minahan said.

Before the birthday parties, Minahan, Cohen and the Birthday Wishes volunteers have logistical and preparatory duties to fulfill. “[Catherine and I] have to be in contact with [the home office] every month: we have to tell them how many kids were at the party and the ages and genders of the kids. We also have to tell them when the party will be, and every month we have to contact the homeless shelter [in Waterville] to pick the date and to get the names of the birthday kids. A lot of the time, families will be going in and out, so there could be no birthday children for the month, but then the day of there could be a birthday child because a new family could come in,” Cohen said.

“We also have to get and wrap the gifts and bake the cakes. Luckily, we get a lot of the supplies from the warehouse in Newton, so they give us all of the goody bags, cups and plates. The only thing we really have to use money from our budget on is the buying of the gifts,” Cohen continued.

Although Birthday Wishes is a small club, Cohen credits the dedicated volunteers that make Birthday Wishes possible. “Birthday Wishes is under the CVC, but we get just Birthday Wishes volunteers. Shoutout to Carly Taylor [’15] and Sammy Sturchio [’16] for being our main volunteers. It’s a small group of girls, but they’re very committed and really great. They’re always offering to bake the cakes and do anything we need to, even driving us to the homeless shelter,” Cohen said.

Both Cohen and Minahan are grateful for the opportunities that Birthday Wishes provides them, specifically the educational opportunities. Minahan said, “This year, with help from CVC and Pugh Center programming, Julia and I are really striving to broaden our focus, working to better understand the cyclical and damaging effects of poverty and the unstable economy on homeless men, women and children.”