It’s probably the most recognized song in the English language, but it’s also a tune many homeless children go years without hearing.
A new 30-second video, titled “Birthday Song,” aims to increase awareness while also raising funds for a nonprofit organization dedicated to throwing birthday parties for homeless children.
Many kids don’t know the birthday song simply because they’ve never had a birthday celebration — and there are several reasons for that, said Lisa Vasiloff, who founded Birthday Wishes in 2002 with several friends.
“We threw a party for a 6-year-old girl last year, and the mom said that was her first party because the mom’s abuser wouldn’t allow her to have birthdays,” she said.
Other families simply don’t have money to throw a celebration. Finances, along with lack of transportation, also explain why many kids don’t attend birthday parties for other children, she said.
“These kids, especially if they’re in shelters, don’t get invited to parties. Or if they do, their parents aren’t able to take the kids to their friends’ houses or climbing gyms or wherever the party happens to be,” she said.
About 2.5 million children in the nation are homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
In the video released by Birthday Wishes, several children — all actors — are asked to identify various songs played for them, including "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." When “Happy Birthday” comes up, the children can’t recognize the tune.
The video’s release is meant to benefit from the timing of the birthday song's release two months ago into the public domain following a protracted legal battle. A publishing company had held the rights to the song, along with millions of dollars in royalties, leading to the song’s widespread absence among television shows and movies for decades.
That's another reason why many homeless children have never heard the song before, said Vasiloff, recalling the sight of one child who appeared terrified when presented with a birthday cake.
“He had not seen a cake with candles on it before,” she said. “The expression on his face when that cake was put in front of him — it was clear he had no idea what that tradition or ritual was. It was a complete mystery.”
Birthday Wishes held birthday parties for more than 32,000 homeless children last year, providing cake, decorations and gifts to more than 185 homeless shelters and transitional living sites in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island, New York.
Boston University’s Center of Social Innovation recently teamed up with the nonprofit for a project examining the social impact of the Birthday Wishes program.
“A birthday celebration is a time when a child is the center of attention in a really positive way. It definitely has an impact on their social and emotional development,” Vasiloff said.
In addition to her group, several other organizations around the country have emerged over the past few years to help homeless children.
“There’s just a huge need for what we do,” she said.