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Birthday Parties A Blessing For Homeless Children

A birthday cake. align=left
A birthday cake. align=left

Few events are as special in a child's life as a birthday party - the cake, the gifts, the anticipation. But when a family is worried about where the next meal will come from - or where to spend the night - birthday parties aren't high on the priority list. There are more than three-thousand homeless children in Charlotte who live in shelters, doubled up in apartments with other families, or sometimes even in cars. Many of their birthdays would come and go without notice were it not for a local nonprofit called Birthday Blessings. Bria Foster blushes as the stars of CPCC's summer theatre production sing Happy Birthday for her sweet sixteenth. There's a giant cake made by the school's culinary students waiting nearby. But gifts come first. She opens a purse, some lotion, toiletries - all pink.. Bria's mother Vanessa sits across the table, smiling. She's a single mother, out of work. This birthday party for Bria is a relief. "It's wonderful," says Vanessa. "This was something I used to do all the time, but you know when your means are not what they should be, sometimes you can't always do what you would like." Vanessa and her children have been living in an apartment at the YWCA, so she can get back on her feet, financially. There they discovered Birthday Blessings, a nonprofit group of volunteers who throw monthly parties for homeless children in Charlotte. Bria is the only July birthday at this party, but dozens of other children from the YWCA's summer camp for low-income families have come to help her celebrate. CPCC donated tickets for the kids to see a matinee performance of "A Year with Frog and Toad." Past birthday parties have included bowling with the Bobcats, a tour of the Panther's stadium. "It's just a chance for them to be affirmed that they are special too," says Katie Oleson, one of the many volunteer party planners for Birthday Blessings. "No matter that they go to school and feel that they're different from other kids, they can still celebrate in the same way." Birthday Blessings was founded by a Charlotte couple in 2005. They were looking for a family service project and soon it snowballed into a city-wide program that's now expanding to other states. And Oleson says Birthday Blessing works closely with the schools to bring treats for the classes of homeless children on their birthdays. "So they have something to give out just like everybody else does," says Oleson. Being homeless can take a toll on a child's self-esteem and grades. It's hard to get homework done in the crowded rooms of an emergency shelter. Five-year old Kenny knows because he lived in a shelter until just recently. "I did not like that, cause it's nasty food, and we have to wait a lot," says Kenny. "And there's a lot of people." Now Kenny and his family live in a transitional apartment at the YWCA, which he likes much better. He talks about it matter-of-factly, while chomping on potato chips. Everybody's eyeing the white-frosted birthday cake covered in sprinkles. A small girl named Layla wore her sparkly Disney princess shirt for the party. She lives at the YWCA, too. Next month she turns six. What kind of cake does she hope to have at the party? "Chocolate with white icing," Layla replies. That's a wish the volunteers at Birthday Blessings are happy to grant for a young child who's already been through a lot.