In 2002, Lisa Vasiloff lamented to the owner of the Japanese bookstore where she worked that there were no volunteer opportunities for young kids. She wanted to teach her two sons the importance of giving back to their community.
The owner, Karen Yahara, suggested she make her own.
At the time, Yahara was planning a birthday party for her own child, and Lisa noticed the effort and cost that went into preparations.
Suddenly, Vasiloff had her answer. She would throw birthday parties. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! This is what it should be!”
That was the beginning of Birthday Wishes, a Boston-based non-profit that throws birthday parties for homeless children between the ages of one and 17.
It started small. She and her two co-founders, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger, called a local shelter in Newton to see if they would let them host a birthday party once a month for all the kids born in that month.
Their first party was for a 5-year-old boy. Vasiloff says the party was really impactful for the families involved and that the mother was very grateful to them, since she couldn’t afford to throw a party herself.
The trio continued throwing birthday parties in the shelter, and when the shelter opened a second location, the parties expanded with them.
In 2004, they decided to turn their purely volunteer efforts into a true non-profit. They incorporated and wrote their first grant proposal.
Vasiloff, who has a Bachelor’s degree in History and a Master’s in Japanese study, dove in head-first.
“I literally bought a book called How to Write Grants,” says Vasiloff. The first grant they won was for $5,000.
“We thought that was amazing.”
In 2006, they moved from the bookstore, out of which they had been operating, to the church they still use as their headquarters.
All the time, they were adding more and more shelters to their list.
The Success of Birthday Wishes
In just over 15 years, Birthday Wishes has grown exponentially, expanding to other states in the Northeast. Today, Birthday Wishes serves more than 200 shelters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Long Island and reach 634,000 kids annually.
Vasiloff attributes their success to their laser focus on just one thing: birthdays.
She says their organization has been asked to throw other kinds of parties, like baby showers. And while all celebrations serve the community in their own way, Vasiloff feels she would be under-serving the homeless community by diversifying.
“If we started to stray,” she says, “we weren’t going to do really well, really consistently.”
A Birthday Wishes Party
Vasiloff and her team have birthday parties down to a science. Every month the shelters send a list of children celebrating birthdays with names, ages and interests.
A volunteer coordinator gather together a craft activity fit for children from toddlers to teenagers, paper goods and decorations, the cake or cupcakes with each child’s name in icing, and four wrapped gifts for each child.
“We don’t put anything in a gift bag,” says Vasiloff. “It’s important that they have something they can really unwrap.”
Each child gets a goodie bag before they leave, as well.
The families and children gather in a common area for the party. Sometimes the children come early to help decorate “There’s a real sense of anticipation and excitement,” says Vasiloff.
She says that because parents are busy trying to get their families back on their feet, the parties are one of the only times they all come together to socialize.
For families not in shelters or in domestic abuse centers, Birthday Wishes creates a party in a box. Everything they provide for their monthly parties is boxed up and delivered, so parents can throw their own party.
The Importance of a Party
“At first glance,” says Vasiloff, “this may seem like a superficial, fluffy program when there are so many other needs.”
But, she says, the parties provide joy for kids and families who are in a dark place, where six months in a shelter can seem like an eternity for a small child.
She says the parties give the kids the opportunity to be the focus of attention. It brings a sense of normalcy during a stressful time.
“These kids go to school. They hear about birthday parties. They see the invitations being passed out, and they find themselves not included.”
Vasiloff recalls one 5-year-old boy who showed up to his party in a three-piece suit. He had never had a birthday party and it meant that much to him.
“He showed up in his Sunday best.”
The Future of Birthday Wishes
In the next five years, Birthday Wishes is focusing on centralizing and expanding.
When it comes to serving their communities, they have reached critical mass. Without more staff and a larger headquarters, they can’t serve any more families.
They will add to their team of four full-time employees and expanding their communications and fundraising efforts.
Their goal: to increase awareness and funds.
That includes expanding their most successful fundraiser: the CakeWalk, which is entering its eighth year. CakeWalk is a 5k walk held on the Lasell College campus. It accounts for 20 percent of their revenue, more than half of that coming from corporate sponsors.
Birthday Wishes’ goal is to ensure every birthday child they serve knows the day he was born was a very special day. They are the first of their kind in the country and still the only nonprofit for birthday parties in New England.
Vasiloff hopes they can expand to every New England state to bring the joy of a birthday party to every homeless child in the region.