ST. LOUIS — Marissa Friedmann’s mom wanted to go all-out for her daughter’s ninth birthday party, and for good reason.
Marissa and her siblings had a tough year coping with their parents’ divorce.
So last month, her mom, Dawn Friedmann, planned a party in Crestwood, Mo., to Marissa’s exacting specifications. It would be a sleepover with a bonfire and a menu of cheeseburgers and S’Mores.
They bought a pinata and slipped the first clue for a scavenger hunt inside. And there was a girly cake: a peace sign frosted in pink and brown and adorned with owls and a butterfly.
Yet amid the elaborate plans, there was one thing Marissa was certain she did not want: gifts, at least not for her.
Marissa, inspired by a talk given by a janitor at her school about his work helping the homeless, decided to do something increasingly common among the birthday girl and boy set nationwide.
She asked her guests to bring gifts for people far needier than herself. “He was talking about making a difference,” Marissa recalled. “And I was thinking in my head, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ It’s not about making a difference for yourself, it’s about making a difference to others.”
So instead of trinkets like friendship bracelets and new diaries, Marissa’s 12 guests brought wrapped baby items to be donated to Nurses for Newborns. The St. Louis-based charity provides home visits by nurses to new Missouri mothers and babies living in poverty or other difficult circumstances.
Surrounded by her friends, Marissa unwrapped, one-by-one, binkies, onesies, receiving blankets, bibs and baby bottles. She and her guests shrieked, “awww” and “sooo cute,” so loudly, it sounded like a Justin Bieber sighting.
Charities for children say they’re used to getting donations for the mothers and babies they serve during the holiday season. But now they are finding a year-round infusion of contributions arranged through kids’ birthday parties like Marissa’s.
“It makes us smile anytime any donor comes into our office, but especially the little ones, and they come all the time now,” said Claire Devoto of Nurses for Newborns, who said even little a donation, like a bottle brush to help a mother properly clean a baby bottle, can make a big difference.
“Our moms don’t have dishwashers. A dollar bottle brush can save a baby,” Devoto said.
Last year, Nurses for Newborns had more than 100 children donate items for babies and their mothers through their birthday parties.
Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, another St. Louis nonprofit that provides support for foster children and foster parents, had 223 different families give gifts to needy foster children through its “birthday buddy” program. Meanwhile, Crisis Nursery, which provides temporary housing for children of families in crisis, typically because of poverty, had about a dozen donations this past year through birthday parties. Those birthday donors got tours of the nurseries and a kid-friendly explanation of how hard it is to grow up in poverty.
Fonda Richards of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition said she sees the grace in child birthday giving from both sides. Her Kirkwood, Mo., home is the drop-off and pickup point for donations.
On one end she sees proud children with big smiles carting bags of gifts they’ve collected for a foster child to her home. On the other, she sees foster children and foster parents nearly cry when they’ pick up gifts for a birthday later that day.
Once, Richards said, a foster child simply asked for a box of cake mix for her birthday.
“We walk around and we want to make sure that we protect our children and not tell them the woes of our world,” Richards said. “It’s better to tell our kids. It’s better to educate our kids so they know not all kids have what you have and you can make a difference.”
There are even new businesses ventures to encourage charitable giving at child birthday parties.
Five years ago, Debbie Zinman co-founded a Toronto online company called ECHOage after she realized most of these gifts for the birthday boy or girl had been hastily purchased that morning, only to be left on a table at the party and forgotten.
On her company’s website, parents create an email birthday party invitation and ask guests to contribute money. Half of it is pooled for one larger gift requested by the birthday child, such as an iPod. The other half goes to one of the company’s partnered charities, also selected by the child.
The company so far has brokered $1.2 million in donations through 10,000 child birthday parties held in the United States and Canada, Zinman said. On just one November weekend, Zinman said, more than 100 ECHOage birthday parties were scheduled.
Parents like Hyatt Hodges of St. Louis wholeheartedly endorse the practice. She said it was far more appealing to collect gifts at her son’s birthday party for people who really needed them than the guilt she felt last year after her son, Truman Suh, then 5, was given nearly every Lego set off the shelf of Target.
This year, Truman decided to ask his friends to bring gifts for a 10-year-old foster child named Jojuan. Though they had not met him, they were told the child was interested in art and liked to make things. So Truman’s friends brought magic markers and craft supplies and Lego kits and lots of gift cards.
His guests were so generous, the family ended up supplying birthday wishes for three foster children. The art supplies went to Jojuan, while the gift cards went to older children in foster care who were close to aging out of the system with no family support. Those teens could use those gift cards to buy food and household items.
Marissa Friedmann's friends feel the softness of a gifted baby blanket during her birthday party on November 9, 2012, in St. Louis, Missouri. Friedmann decided that instead of gifts for herself, she wanted baby items to donate to Nurses for Newborns. (Sarah Conard/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)×
Marissa Friedmann, center, and her friends gush over the gift of a baby outfit during her birthday party on November 9, 2012, in St. Louis, Missouri. Friedmann decided that instead of gifts for herself, she wanted baby items to donate to Nurses for Newborns. Surrounding Marissa from left, Lauren Jacobs, Isabel Watz, Caroline Agostini, Lily Franck, Avery Blankenship, Riley Roedel (behind Marissa), Emma Weidler, Sydney McComish, and Annalise Anderson. (Sarah Conard/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)×
Marissa Friedmann, center, and her friends gush over the gift of a baby outfit during her birthday party on November 9, 2012, in St. Louis, Missouri. Friedmann decided that instead of gifts for herself, she wanted baby items to donate to Nurses for Newborns. Surrounding Marissa, from left, Riley Roedel, Caroline Agostini, Lauren Jacobs, Emma Wiedler, Lily Franck, and Sydney McComish. (Sarah Conard/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)×