"Everything we do is to reinforce their sense of worth," Schinnell Leake tells PEOPLE

By Johnny Dodd
November 28, 2018 05:12 PM
Schinnell Leake
Nilaya Sabnis/L’Oréal Paris

Schinnell Leake watched as the 4-year-old girl—decked out in a superhero princess costume—tore into the stack of birthday presents in the cafeteria of a Maryland homeless shelter. Day-Glo streamers and helium balloons hung from the wall above a chocolate cake covered with candles.

“How’d you do this, mommy?” the excited little girl exclaimed to her mother, who seemed embarrassed by the question. “You don’t have any money.”

Jumping into the conversation, Leake said, “Mommys make magic happen,” as the young mom looked at her and mouthed the words “thank you.” Recalls Leake: “That, for me, was a pretty awesome moment.”

Eight years ago, Leake, 59, launched her own brand of magic with Extra-Ordinary Birthdays, a nonprofit that creates personalized birthdays—complete with frosted cakes, presents and goody bags—for homeless kids and their families in the Washington, D.C., area.

Leake and a volunteer at a recent birthday party.
Nilaya Sabnis/L’Oréal Paris

“When a family is struggling to find housing and put food on the table, a child’s birthday is often last on the list of priorities—and often completely unattainable,” says Leake, who was a L’Oreal Woman of Worth national honoree in 2015. “So we give them what other children get to enjoy on their birthday.”

Inspiration for the nonprofit, explains Leake, a married mother of two, came from her own mom, Irene, who died in 2007.

“She was a huge celebrator of life and I wanted to do that for homeless children,” says Leake, who—along with her crew of 120 volunteers—gets her cues for her individualized party themes from the kids themselves. (Wonder Woman “is really, really big right now,” she says.)

Ultimately, Leake sees her undertaking as something much bigger than simply creating birthday parties (to date, her nonprofit has hosted over 800 celebrations) for deserving kids.

“These children cope with the shame and lack of self-esteem that comes with being homeless,” she says. “What we do is help make them feel valued and provide them with a little hope and a little light.”