Somewhere in the mountain of Barbie dolls, stuffed toys and pink chaos that consumed every corner of my house, a genius idea was born. Having 3 daughters in 3 years meant that for many years, every birthday party and Christmas morning was filled with too many toys and new party dresses. By the time my oldest daughters 7th birthday came around it was obvious, they had more than enough stuff.
I love kids birthday celebrations; the friends, the parties, the sleepovers, the fun homemade cake and the creative loot bags . . .but I didn’t love the 12 new (and quite unnecessary) toys that came with it. So I declared age 7 the year each of my kids would begin choosing a place to donate instead of receiving gifts for themselves. They were old enough to understand they didn’t need stuff to celebrate a birthday and there were people and places in the world that were very much in need.
I wanted giving back to be fun though, a big deal, to be able to see the beginning and the end of the giving, to drop items off themselves, to see who they were helping and why it was needed. More than a food bank or a foreign monetary donation, I wanted an experience. Similar to the 10 Things You Can Do With Mom When You Are 10 birthday gift I created for each of them on their 10th birthdays. I wanted an experience they would remember.
Giving Back is an Experience
We found two favorites. One is The Painted Rock Animal Rescue Farm that takes in farm animals that have been neglected, abused or abandoned. Even the pigs that fall off the trucks on the highway find refuge at this farm. We ask our birthday party guests to bring cat and dog food, blankets and pails, gauze and gift cards, cat litter and pet pillows and wrap them up as you would any traditional birthday gift.
The Party We Host
The day of the party all the kids gather around as my birthday girl opens all her “presents.” You have never seen a group of kids get so excited over cat litter, it is truly both impressive and curious to watch. Kids go crazy when a cute cat toy is unwrapped or a new blanket for a baby goat, and they completely forget the birthday girl is not getting anything for themselves. They don’t seem to care that there is no new tiara or sparkly pink thing.
Another favorite is Sew on Fire, a ministry dedicated to making bags, diapers, baby layettes, and filling school pencil cases and backpacks. These care packages accompany church groups and medical missions that travel to schools, orphanages and villages in need all over the world. Each week volunteers of all ages gather in an assembly line to sort, pack, wrap and stuff to produce hundreds of care packages in one night that will travel half way around the world in days.
We have hosted kids birthday parties where guests are asked to fill a Sew on Fire cinch bag with everything a girl their own age would want for school or personal hygiene. You can’t imagine how much fun they have seeing all the creative items that were being donated as my daughters pulls cute little stuffed animals, hair bands, markers and note pads out of bag after bag.
The Part Where We Give Back
The best part about this type of giving back is that it doesn’t end when the party is over. Our family takes a morning and drives to the animal rescue farm to deliver all of our ‘gifts’ and we spend an evening at Sew on Fire organizing all the donations collected. On many occasions we have taken some of the partygoers with us.
But what truly makes both of these giving back experiences worth it to my children, is Farmer Laura and Sew on Fires Wendy Hagar.
Farmer Laura embraced my girls from the start, and year after year is truly honoured that they give up receiving gifts themselves to help her animals. She rewards the kids with an hour long visit with each and everyone of her animals, we meet the new ones, get a health update on our favorites, feed everyone apples, cookies and carrots that we have brought. She has let the kids ride a pony, pet a raccoon and chinchilla, clean out a pigs stall and on my daughters 11th birthday, she waited 2 weeks for her to visit so she could name her newest kitten that almost didn’t make it through the first night.
Wendy created Sew on Fire in her basement and is now busting out of a 10,000sq foot warehouse. She delights in showing my kids all the donations she has received – who sent her crates of mini body wash, the baby clothes from stores going out of business and can’t wait to tell them where shipments are going this week. Photos of orphanages she has helped and stories of young mothers that received her layettes are inspiring to my kids. Wendy gives the girls jobs to do when they volunteer and makes it fun for them by having them make candy care packages, dressing Barbie dolls or sorting coloured pencil crayons into mini packages for the pencil cases. They love Wendy so much, they beg me to take them every week so they can volunteer regularly, not just on their birthdays.
We are about to host our 13th Giving Back Kids Birthday Party next month as my youngest daughter turns 9. That is 13 birthday parties without a single gift being received by my kids and, more importantly, 13 vans full of supplies, toys, blankets, and toys for animals and children that really need our help.
I am positive my kids don’t understand the enormity of what they have donated over the last 6 years, but I do know they understand the importance of giving back, of helping others, of donating your time as well as items.
And they know, that a birthday is even more fun when you can make a difference by giving and not receiving.