Can you visualize it? Maybe your memories are tied to the pile of presents on the table, guests in party hats, or the big, frosted cake just begging for its candles to be lit.
Now, imagine it's your birthday -- and you're without a home in which to celebrate. You're the displaced child. You're the parent without means to create a little birthday magic for your son or daughter.
Every child deserves to feel special on their birthday: to fill up on too much cake; to gleefully tear open presents; to giggle and play with pals; to breathe in deep and blow out all of the candles.
When a child lacks a sense of belonging and significance, their self-esteem is threatened, stifled, and discouraged. Amid the struggle to secure housing and groceries, a birthday party is last on the list of priorities -- though it likely hasn't even made the list.
Children face particularly adverse effects of homelessness. They're often separated from relatives, friends, and schools when their families become homeless. They've got to cope with the shame associated with losing their home.
So, what do you do when you -- the parent, the provider -- don't have a place to call home and your child's birthday approaches?
In founding Extra-Ordinary Birthdays, I first put myself in those parents' shoes. Its mission and vision were clear to me: to foster self-esteem and recognize value through the celebration of homeless children on their birthdays.
My daughters' birthdays have always been special occasions. As a mother, I know these celebrations were critical to the development of their self-esteem -- and the growth and maturation of that self-esteem began at home.
The parties we create serve as a setting, an experience during which children feel appreciated. Held in cafeterias, play rooms, and classrooms in shelters all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia, these celebrations inspire smiles and moments of sheer delight, so that the birthday boy or girl might -- regardless of their circumstances -- feel valued, recognized, loved.
An EOB party's focus is its guest of honor. Does she love Elsa from Frozen? Does he prefer Thomas the Tank Engine over Hot Wheels? Prior to the party, we spend weeks coordinating with local shelters and strategizing party themes: crafting hand-made decorations; conjuring up games and packaging goody bags; preparing and plating snacks and treats.
In tailoring each celebration's theme to something the birthday girl or boy loves -- whether it's a sports team, a character, or a movie -- we reinforce their self-worth. We nurture their unique interests. The child is the center of attention, an element that distinguishes EOB from other organizations that provide more generic or group-focused offerings.
Parents and caregivers are front and center in the EOB process, too, from filling out a pre-party questionnaire and facilitating party games to cutting the cake and presenting their child with an EOB-provided gift and birthday photo book. We aim to emphasize -- and create opportunities for -- parental participation, as it gives them a sense of ownership and fuels their confidence as providers.
EOB works tirelessly to weave together these tiny but critical details -- like crafting the pin-the-carrot-on-the-Olaf poster or hand-painted race car toilet paper rolls -- to ensure that when the party starts, child and parent have but two jobs: to have fun and make beautiful memories.
A birthday is one of the most special days in the year of a growing child. He can be the center of attention. She can be the recipient of gifts and much deserved praise.
It's not just about celebrating a birthday -- which every child deserves -- it's about being able to foster their growth, development, and self-esteem despite external circumstances. Feeling valued is every child's basic right.
Schinnell Leake is the Founder of Extra-Ordinary Birthdays providing personalized birthday parties for homeless children. Giving them their "moment" while helping parents lead in that moment, Schinnell, can't think of a better way to spend her days. Schinnell Leake was recognized as a L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth in 2015 for making an extraordinary difference in her community.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2015 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2016, please visit womenofworth.com.
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