Sharon Brown runs Birthday Blessing Inc. from her parents' home in Leesburg. Volunteers with the nonprofit group collect new gifts and money to buy presents for poor or abused children and teenagers in Loudoun and Fairfax counties and Alexandria, and social workers deliver them. Brown's day job involves marketing for TRT Inc., a family company specializing in continuing ethics education for lawyers. She spoke with Washington Post reporter Michael Laris about her plans and the challenges and rewards of a project she began in 2002.
QWhere have you seen an
AWe had a 14-year-old who had been removed from his mother's custody within a week of his birthday. He was put in the Loudoun youth shelter because his dad was off the scene, and we got a phone call about his birthday present. We got him the gift. I've always felt like the gift should be handed to the child from someone they've seen before. So I try not to be that person, because they don't know me. So I gave it to the director, and she said when she handed the gift to that 14-year-old boy, he just looked at it and kept saying: "I can't believe someone remembered; someone remembered my birthday. Wow."
We had a case one time, the little girl was turning 10. She was actually -- this was kind of sad -- she was being transferred from here to another state on her birthday. On the airplane, the social worker pulled the gift out, and gave it to her and said, "Happy birthday." It was a gift that Birthday Blessing had provided, and they said the little girl kept looking at it and saying, "Aaaaah, I can't believe someone remembered." She just -- she couldn't believe it. It was great. We have a lot of different stories like that, where the long and short of it is, these kids are just so appreciative. . . .
There was another case in Fairfax County. The information we're given from the county and the shelters and everything is the child's first name, birth date, age and sex, and ethnicity. That's about it. So we delivered all the gifts in Fairfax, and we were told the following month that there had been four girls [in foster care]. They had been brought back to visit their mom at this center -- a supervised visitation -- and all four girls had birthdays the same month. They had birthday presents there from Birthday Blessing. . . . They were four sisters. . . . We had no idea! We wouldn't have known that because we didn't have their last names. . . . They said, you put any four girls with their mom in a room with presents, and you're going to have a party. These girls were so excited.
How far is your reach now?
About 40 to 50 children a month get a birthday present right now. It's all volunteer. There's no paid staff or anything, which is also why it's only 40 kids a month. But it's working well. The kids are so appreciative. We're doing this in Fairfax County and Loudoun County and Alexandria. When we first started in Fairfax, the social workers told the director: "We don't want to do this. It's not going to work. These kids don't like handouts. They don't want to be thought of as needy." She said, "You know what, let's just try it." They tried it, and after a year, the response came back that the kids were saying, "Wow! You mean someone in my community out there cares about me and my birthday?" So they were getting the connection with the community, as well as getting the gift.
All kids like gifts. But these kids are in the public school system. They go to school with my kids, all the public school kids, who not only have birthday presents but birthday parties. They get loaded with birthday presents, and then there are these unfortunate children. Some of them are in foster homes that are not able to provide that way. Some of them are in group housing. . . . When people ask us what we need, I always tell them that the teenage gifts are the hardest to come by. When people think of birthday presents, and they want to take their kids to go buy presents for Birthday Blessing, they are thinking of toys. They are thinking of Barbies and babies and teddy bears and balls and Legos and things like that. . . . It's the teenagers who get left out a lot.
What's your hope for the group?
My ultimate ambition would be to take it nationwide. And it would be, a, quote unquote, easy thing, too, because every county has social services. So it could be worked that way. I hate to say this, but it really all does come down to money. If we had enough money, if we had some venture capitalist or someone who wanted to invest in us, we could afford to get a place, to get some paid people in there, to get some really great professional marketing out there, to bring in the donations and the kids and the toys and everything, and to take it nationwide, and to get the publicity that we need. But not just publicity, because that only takes you so far, but you've got to have the funding. I think that's the biggest challenge. . . .
There are so many organizations that do Christmas, and that's very necessary; I think that's really important. Birthdays are a little harder to do because they only have one birthday, and it's not everybody gearing up for that one day of the year. Get the presents out! Somebody said to me one time, "Do you do this in the summer?" And I said, "Well, yes, kids have birthdays in the summer, you know? It's a year-round thing."
Your organization is called Birthday Blessing. Is there a religious component?
People ask me that. We're not affiliated with a church. It's not that. I'm a Christian. But it's not pushing that. Now, the birthday card does say: "Happy Birthday, from Birthday Blessing. May you have a terrific year, knowing that you are a gift from God and that He loves you very much." So that's the only religious affiliation, and we went with that because a lot of people, I would say the majority of people, believe in some higher power, a superior being. People call him God, people call him different things. But we didn't put Jesus in there, just because that takes out a lot of people.
What are some of the gifts?
We give basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, watches and jewelry, and cologne and backpacks, and gift cards -- those are always great gifts to give, especially the older kids. With the younger set . . . board games are always great. Arts and crafts, games and projects to do, and Barbies and Legos, and teddy bears and books, a lot of books, puzzles. . . . Dress-up costumes, Bob the Builder stuff, some Barney stuff, but that's a little bit young for our kids. We start at 3 years old and go up from there. Most of the time we do not get special requests from the children. It's a lot easier when we do. When you're looking at a 12-year-old girl, and you don't know if she likes sports or makeup, that's a challenge. But when they specifically say, "My favorite color is blue, and I like soccer and I like Barbies" then it's a lot easier to fill the requests. We give a lot of CD players and Walkmans, and with the older guys, we give them clock radios, and even some boom boxes sometimes. But we're down to a price range of about $30. It's not usually real extravagant, but it gives them something nice.
Is it mostly poverty that's driving the need?
We get all kinds of situations. It's either poverty or it's abuse. A lot of times, the gift acts as several things. It helps the child with their self-esteem. It might help make a connection between the person handing them the gift and the child. It just lets them know that someone's out there who cares about them. Sometimes if they are in a situation where all hope is lost -- I mean the boy who was taken away from his mother within a week of his birthday, he was 14. That's pretty old to be pulled out of your home and stuck in a youth shelter. That's just tragic. I can't imagine what he was feeling and thinking when that happened, that there's no one out there. That birthday present really, I think, did a lot of good for him and the director who handed it to him.
For more information, call 703-481-8180 or visit www.birthdayblessing.org.