April 4, 2013 at 12:33 PM ET
Around their son’s third birthday, it dawned on Amy and John Cervantes that the joy, love and recognition their little boy, Alex, received on his big day — surrounded by new toys, family and friends — was absent from many children’s lives.
So in 2005 the Cervantes family, who had been looking for a service project for their growing brood, began throwing birthday parties for homeless children who otherwise might not get to celebrate the day they were born.
“We wanted to get our kids involved and it can be hard to find suitable places for children,” Amy Cervantes told TODAY.com. “For young children, a lot of things are very abstract. Something like a birthday every child understands: What if their day came and no one came to celebrate with them?”
The North Carolina family's project has since grown into the nonprofit Bright Blessings, which has now marked the birthdays of more than 10,000 needy kids.
The Cervantes put on group celebrations for children whose birthdays fall in the same month, throwing parties with cake, cupcakes, games and presents.
At the first bash they held, the family was most surprised that the majority of kids at the shelter had never attended a birthday party, let alone had one of their own. The homeless children often experience firsts at the parties, from blowing out candles (“Can I do it again?”) to keeping the gifts they’ve unwrapped (“Do I get to keep these?”).
Amy recalled asking one 16-year-old how he was enjoying the party. "He looks up and he was so polite," she said, remembering that he told her, "Oh, yes ma’am. I love everything, but I’ve never had a room full of people sing to me on my birthday."
“One 10-year-old we gave a football and he was throwing it around with John,” Amy said. “At the end of the party, he came up and gave my husband a hug and said ‘Thank you, Mr. John, for letting me play with this on my birthday’ and gave it back.”
Getting new presents is a novelty for many of the birthday girls and boys. One little girl who found a purse beneath the gift-wrapping took a sniff of her new handbag and noted how fresh it smelled.
The Cervantes family took the birthday celebrations, which started in shelters, to schools, after noticing that birthdays are often blasted at school and many students bring treats to share with their classmates. For transient homeless children, who may be staying with friends, family, or in a motel or car, Bright Blessings now sends anonymous packages with birthday snacks and gifts to their schools.
“School is the one place that can remain consistent during the transition in the home environment,” said Kay Carreira, specialist for the homeless education program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “And being able to celebrate a birthday at school adds to a sense of normalcy and consistency in the lives of these students.”
The birthday packages are supplemented with basic necessities, as well as healthy snacks and items like jump ropes to encourage movement. Young kids sometimes assume their parents are behind the birthday packages.
“Older students have a better idea of home and financial challenges, and they know what these financial challenges could mean when it comes to birthdays,” said Carreira. “When they receive their birthday packages, they are caught off guard and overwhelmed. Some have even been known to shed a few tears.”
Bright Blessings coordinates with shelters and schools, adding that it’s too challenging to track individual families. The effort is slowly sprouting around the country with affiliates starting in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
“Our goal has always been to touch the children during their journey through homelessness to make it a little easier and brighter,” Cervantes said.
The three Cervantes boys have also learned about service and compassion through the process. While playing hoops with children at a shelter, Alex Cervantes, 10, noticed that both of their basketballs were deflated, and ended up putting his own birthday money toward buying new ones.
“As much as we have wanted to instill giving back and finding joy in giving back, we also don’t want them to see the differences with these children,” Cervantes said. “They’re just like them. They’re still kids.”