A party, a cake, and the feeling that ‘someone in the world still does care about us,’ delivered by nonprofit Birthday Wishes.
The birthday party planner showed up at the house right on time with all the ingredients for a good party. Balloons. A big cake. A bag full of girly gifts — a sparkly tiara, a string of shiny beads, a craft kit.
But this wasn’t a typical birthday party. It was at a shelter for homeless teenage mothers and their children. And this birthday girl was one of the mothers.
“No one ever made a party for me,’’ said Asia Myers,who had chosen a 1960s peace theme for her 20th birthday party and made a peace sign with her fingers when she blew out the candles.
The party came courtesy of Birthday Wishes, a Newton organization that has been bringing birthday parties to homeless children since 2002. It has blossomed from a grass-roots volunteer operation serving a single shelter in Newton into a robust nonprofit with more than 500 volunteers and nine part-time staff memberswho arrange parties for children in more than 150 shelters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Long Island, N.Y.
Most of these shelters house teenage mothers, and organizers noticed that some of them, while happy enough to celebrate their kids’ special days, were longing for birthday parties themselves. “They may have come from the same situations their children are in now, and they never had a party or anyone to make them feel special,’’ said Lisa Vasiloff, executive director of Birthday Wishes. “They want goody bags, and they want to do crafts. We have to remember they are kids, too.’’
So Birthday Wishes recently expanded its mission by arranging birthday parties for young women in shelters for homeless teenage mothers.
“We purposely keep our parties very simple so they provide models for the moms,’’ Vasiloff said. “We are showing them, basically, that you can throw a really fun, joyful party that gives the birthday child a lot of attention and love without it being elaborate and expensive. You can do it in a very simple way and it can still have a lot of meaning.’’
Every birthday girl gets gifts, decorations, and an activity. The teens at Myers’s party made beaded key chains with peace signs on them.
“The only difference is that, instead of toys, we give them Target gift cards and lotions and books, or scrapbooking or jewelry-making kits,’’ said Courtney Vernadakis, volunteer director of Birthday Wishes who organized Myers’s party.
And there is always a cake inscribed with the celebrant’s name. Even disengaged teens who stay in their rooms for their own parties will always show up for their cake, Vasiloff said. “It makes them the center of attention for that day,’’ she said. “It makes them feel special.’’
Birthday Wishes threw more than 500 parties last year alone, and their work isn’t slowing down, since homelessness isn’t… .
Homeless children miss out on a lot. They don’t sleep in their own beds. They don’t have mailing addresses. They can’t count on access to the Internet, health care, or education. And they rarely participate in the rituals most Americans take for granted, whether it’s celebrating holidays or being honored on birthdays.
Katherine Rodriguez, a 17-year-old mother of a 17-month-old boy, said she skipped her birthday last year.
“Everyone just forgot,’’ she said. “Only one person actually said ‘Happy Birthday’ to me.’’
Myers’s party was at Serving People in Need, a residential teen living program where she has lived for a 15 months with her son, Delvonni, who is 19 months old. The shelter was full, housing 11 teens — one of whom is pregnant — and 10 children, aged 4 months to 4 years. Most stay less than a year until they find housing or graduate to the next level of the program, where they can live in apartments.
Teen mothers come here for different reasons, said family advocate Shannon O’Karma. They may be in domestic violence situations or in conflict with their parents. Myers lives here because her mother was evicted from her Boston apartment. At first she moved in with an aunt, but had to leave after her son was born because the landlord told her the apartment was too small.
“That’s one of the most common stories we hear,’’ O’Karma said. “Too many people. It was overcrowded. It wasn’t safe.’’
But there are other stories, too. Lareasa Gonzalez, who just turned 19, lives in Worcester’s YOU Inc. teen parent apartment program with her 1-year-old son. She grew up with her mother and grandmother and had a “really nice’’ life, she said, until her grandmother died.
“My whole family turned their back on me when they found out I was pregnant,’’ she said. Now, she thinks of the other mothers in the shelter as her family. When Birthday Wishes made a party for her, she was very touched, she said.
“When I was growing up, I always had a little party and someone to give me a cake,’’ she said. “But when things go wrong and we come to the shelter, we lose all of that. Nobody is here to give us a cake, so having them come is real special to us. It shows us someone in the world still does care about us.’’
Asia Myers said she was grateful for her party, which was attended by six other shelter residents and their children. The best part was blowing out the candles. But she was also grateful for the party Birthday Wishes threw for Delvonni when he turned 1.
“Thank the lord,’’ said Myers, who works part-time in a home for the elderly and is also going to school for her GED. She tried to organize a party for him at her sister’s place, “but it was really hard. It was like, ‘Who’s going to help me?’ I had to, like, keep him from crying.’’
The handmade birthday card she got at the shelter on last year’s birthday is stilltaped to the door of her room. O’Karma said residents sometimes tell her the cards make them sad because it reminds them of how long they have been there, that another year has come and gone.
“Happy birthday Asia,’’ said one message on last year’s birthday card. “Hope all your wishes come true.’’
Linda Matchan can be reached at matchan@globe .com.
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.