Slumber parties, bowling parties, ice skating parties … These are always fun options. But for parents and children looking for an element of surprise to this year’s birthday celebration, consider a charity party, where instead of traditional gifts for the birthday child, guests bring a pre-determined financial or material donation for a specific cause.
“A lot of parents want to get their children involved in charitable giving,” says Robin Amato-Lancy, director of development at Long Island Cares/The Harry Chapin Food Bank in Hauppauge. “A charity birthday party is a great way to introduce them to the concept. When children learn how to be selfless starting at a young age, it often carries through to adulthood.”
Spreading the Message
It’s one thing to desire to instill a sense of giving in your own child, but a wonderful side-effect to hosting a charity party is that it involves other children as well -– the party guests. So the experience of doing for the benefit of others is enjoyed by kids who may never be exposed to this type of opportunity otherwise.
“The parents of the other children are always so thrilled to give and they love to use it as an example to teach their own children about charity and giving,” says Katie Mittelman of Huntington, a mom of two.
And as other children enjoy the emotional and spiritual rewards that go hand-in-hand with philanthropy, they’re more prone to host their own charity events. In addition, often when one child in a household holds a charity party, siblings, who bear witness to the exciting proceedings, follow right along.
All in the Family
That was the case for the Mittelman children, Patrick, 9, and Jennifer, 6. “Both of my children have had birthday parties, at which in lieu of gifts, they requested donations for The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind [in Smithtown],” says Mittelman. “My son decided to do this at the early age of six, as did my daughter.”
Over the years, their parties have raised from $500 to $1,000 for the non-profit foundation.
Last year Mariel Stein of Centerport also collected money from her party guests for animal welfare, raising $150 for The Little Shelter in Huntington. This year, for her eleventh birthday, she collected $125 plus dog treats and care items, which were presented in February to The Little Shelter.
Give With a Theme
Steins’ entire birthday party was in fact, dog-themed, which tied in nicely to the charitable aspect. “We took her friends to see the movie Hotel for Dogs
; then we brought them back to our house for pizza and a cake decorated with a dog’s face, which Mariel drew,” says mom Donna.
Creating a theme around the charity party is a great way to add excitement and to tap into the birthday child’s creativity. For example, if your child loves sea creatures, the party décor can reflect that. Guests can also be asked to bring donations to support the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, located within the Atlantis Marine World aquarium.
“We’ve seen many children working to create awareness and raising funds to care for the animals. It’s very encouraging,” says Rob DiGiovanni, foundation director and senior biologist.
The Mittelman kids have created posters to display at their parties with fun facts about the Guide Dog Foundation so guests learn about guide dogs and where their donations are going. “And we always send out doggie-themed thank you cards,” adds Mittelman.
Taking this idea one step further, the charity itself can be the focus of the entire birthday party celebration. Eleven-year-old Alley Wolff of Jericho has been hosting charity parties for a number of years in which the guests are active participants. At her parties, they stuff goody bags—but not to take home. Instead, they create bags with fun, inexpensive children’s items (brought as donations by the party guests), such as Matchbox cars, puzzles, hand-held bubbles, coloring books and crayons that are then delivered to the Syosset-based charity Smile-in-a-Bag. The activity bags are then given away to children staying in area hospitals.
Selecting a Charity
Of course, with so many non-profit organizations on Long Island, choosing just one for a charity party might feel overwhelming to a child. But one way to narrow it down is by selecting an organization that the family is already familiar with. For example, when Greenlawn’s Aria Wiseblatt, 13, had her charity birthday party recently, she chose to bestow the Pederson-Krag Center, a mental health not-for-profit treatment facility with various locations in Suffolk County. “Aria’s grandmother has worked at Pederson-Krag for 40 years, so there is a real connection,” explains her mother, Debbie Fischman Wiseblatt.
“It does help if you can pick a charity that your child can relate to,” adds Mittelman. “We’re previous puppy walkers for the Guide Dog Foundation and we currently are breeder caretakers for two of their dogs, so my children feel a strong connection to the Foundation and can see their donations at work.”
For families that are stumped, groceries are always in short supply at local pantries or food banks. Long Island Cares/The Harry Chapin Food Bank has ongoing food drives throughout Long Island. Charity party guests can be asked to bring canned or dried goods such as cereal and pasta. But there are other items that are generally in need as well. When one of Alley Wolff ‘s charity parties was to benefit a neighborhood food pantry, her mom Joanne Polichetti called the organization first to inquire about current shortages.
“They had a desperate need for baby items, diapers, baby cloths – stuff you can’t buy with food stamps,” she says.
Children’s winter coats or other items of clothing, sneakers or school supplies can be requested as donations for non-profits such as The Family Service League in Huntington. Children’s books are great to collect for libraries in low-income areas and organizations such as John Theissen Children’s Foundation are continually seeking something underprivileged or sick children always welcome – toys.
But what about toys for the birthday kids? Are they being deprived of a once-a-year privilege by hosting a charity party?
Not at all, say the parents. Often, when a child is willing to host a charity party, they understand that they already have an abundance of material possessions and so personal gifts from guests will be sacrificed. But that’s the entire point.
“Aria didn’t want gifts. She felt she had plenty of stuff and wanted to help those less fortunate,” says Fischman Wiseblatt.
“It’s not that she doesn’t get presents at all,” adds Polichetti of her daughter Alley. Their large family makes sure her daughter receives plenty of birthday gifts. And some parents send their party-going children with the charity donation plus a present for the birthday child.
In the end, asks Polichetti pointedly, “How many Barbie dolls does a little girl need?”
Northport mom Claudia Gryvatz Copquin is an award-winning freelance journalist and author.