When Amy Cervantes and her husband John wanted to teach their three kids about giving back to the community, they found a way to do it that ended up helping thousands.
Inspiration struck when their oldest son Alex turned 3 and the family was celebrating with a small party at the park. Cervantes, 40, looked at the stack of presents and Thomas the Tank Engine cake and thought about kids who weren’t able to celebrate the day they were born.
She came up with a simple, but powerful idea – they would throw a birthday party for a homeless child in a shelter.
“After seeing our own son, it just kind of struck us on that day,” Cervantes says of her eldest, now 10. “Realizing how blessed he was to be surrounded by and filled with the sense of care and love from others on the day. It just struck us, made us think about kids who don’t get to experience that.”
Starting with a luau-themed party for kids at a homeless shelter, Amy, John, 40, a financial adviser, and their three boys Alex, Adam, 8, and Eli, 5, have since feted more than 10,000 needy kids through their nonprofit Bright Blessings. Relying on donations and volunteers, they hold monthly birthday bashes for groups of children, with face-painting, cupcakes and gifts like footballs and board games.
“It never gets old,” Cervantes says. “It’s a little piece of childhood that many of them are missing because of their life circumstances and that really comes out in their laughter and smiles.”
Since their first party in 2005, the Cervantes family – based in Matthews, N.C. – and a small army of regular volunteers throw parties for homeless kids throughout a four-county region in North Carolina. The program has expanded beyond just the area shelters to include the transient homeless – kids who may sleep with their families in their car, at a hotel or even under a bridge.
Bright Blessings works with the school system (and 16 other agencies) to make sure elementary school students can celebrate in their classrooms with cupcakes sent in anonymously to school. Older kids get a backpack full of presents and a bag with a blanket, pillow, and toiletries.
“They have impacted countless families just here at our site alone,” says Kenya Henderson, director of the YWCA’s Families Together Program. “I think it’s a stress reliever for our families, because while they’re in the program they’re trying to gain stability … and it’s hard for a mom to not acknowledge a birthday. Knowing their kids will get a gift, it meets a great need and it’s a huge burden off of the parents. I just see lots of happy children, they burst through the doors, they are genuinely excited to be there.”
Alexis Odugba, who lives with her mom in Charlotte’s YWCA shelter, celebrated turning 14 in February with pizza and gifts of perfumes and lotions. “I got to blow out a candle, and people sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” she says. “I felt very special.”
Moments like that help the volunteers understand the true meaning of giving, says Cervantes.
Says Amy, “We had a 10-year-old volunteer helping a 7-year-old boy who was one of the guests of honor. We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and the volunteer told the little boy to blow out the candle on his cupcake and make a wish. The boy didn’t know what to do. He’d never blown out a candle on a cake before. After he did it he looked up smiling and said, ‘Can I do it again?'”
And an added bonus for Cervantes is that her initial goal to teach her kids to give back has grown more than she ever anticipated.
“They all get it,” she says of her three boys. “It really is a fabric of our family and they are so involved. They shop with me for the gifts and supplies and snacks and they help pick things out. We all go to the parties together.”
Son Alex agrees.
“When I get there the kids light up when we’re unloading gifts,” he says. “When they hear the [birthday] song, they just get so excited, their faces light up. It’s really nice and I feel pretty blessed. They might get a party once or twice in a four year span, but I get it every year.”
It’s a party that parents like Jasmine Billey, 25, a single mother of three toddlers, says has changed her family’s lives. She and her kids have been living in a shelter since an injury kept her out of work as a nurses aid caused her to lose her home.
“It meant a lot because this year I wasn’t able to do anything for Christmas for the kids,” she says. “And when their birthdays came a month later I still couldn’t do anything. Although they’re one and don’t know, I know, so for them to be able to celebrate it just meant a lot.”
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