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Charitable birthdays redefine giving for kids

Friday, December 7, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Marissa Friedmann, center, prepares to blow out the candles while her friends, from left, Lauren Jacobs, Isabel Watz, Caroline Agostini, Lily Franck, Avery Blankenship, Riley Roedel (behind Marissa), Emma Weidler, Sydney McComish, and Annalise Anderson, sing during her birthday party in Crestwood. Friedmann decided that instead of gifts for herself, she wanted baby items to donate to Nurses for Newborns.

CRESTWOOD — Marissa Friedmann's mom wanted to go all-out for her daughter's 9th birthday party — and for good reason.

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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 to Marissa's exacting specifications.

It would be a sleepover with a bonfire and a menu of cheeseburgers and s'mores.

They bought a piñata 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: There would be no 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, both here and nationwide.

She asked her guests to bring gifts for people far needier than herself.

"He was talking about making a difference," Marissa recalled of the janitor's talk. "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 such as 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 at the mall.

Area charities for children such as Nurses for Newborns 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 children's birthday parties such as 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.

Last year, Nurses for Newborns had more than 100 children donate items for babies and their mothers through their birthday parties. Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, another St. Louis nonprofit group that provides support for foster children and foster parents, had 223 different families give gifts to needy foster children through its "birthday buddy" program. 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 child-friendly explanation of how hard it is to grow up in poverty.

Fonda Richards, of Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, said she sees the grace in child birthday giving from both sides. Her home, in Kirkwood, 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 of Toronto co-founded an online company called ECHOage after she realized that most of these gifts for the birthday boy or girl had been hastily purchased that morning only to be dropped 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 has so far brokered $1.2 million in donations through 10,000 child birthday parties held in the United States and Canada, Zinman said. On just one weekend this month, Zinman said, more than 100 ECHOage birthday parties were scheduled.

Parents such as 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.

"What happens at these birthday parties is they get such an enormous amount of things, they can't appreciate them or even play with them," she said. "It just seemed wasteful."

So this year the mom did a little bit of gentle nudging with her son prior to his sixth birthday party to persuade him to give to a foster child through Foster & Adoptive Care's Birthday Buddy program.

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 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.

Jamie Simon, a foster care caseworker with Edgewood Children's Services, said the impact of one child's giving to another in that way can be life-altering.

"It's just important for them to feel loved and cared for and to know that their birthday is not forgotten in foster care," she said.


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