Once we become parents, our focus moves from ourselves to our children – feeding schedules, then potty training, then soccer matches, then graduations. . . Simply put, our children and their needs come first.
Some parents, however, struggle just to give their kids the most basic needs: food on the table, clothes to wear, and a bed to sleep in. For these mothers and fathers, there is no extra cash for superfluous items and certainly very little for birthday presents.
This was the stark realization Mint Hill residents Amy and John Cervantes had in 2005 when their son, Alex, turned three. They watched him open multiple birthday gifts, surrounded by friends and cake, and recognized how blessed they were to provide the simple joy of a party. What, they wondered, were struggling parents able to do?
Thus began Bright Blessings, the non-profit organization born of the Cervantes’ epiphany. They started their Bless-a-Birthday program at just one local homeless shelter, throwing parties each month for the children who otherwise would not have had a party on their special day. They brought cupcakes, juice, and gifts, but more importantly they brought smiles to the faces of the children. Their idea took off as friends, family, and community members eagerly joined in their efforts. Eventually the Cervantes expanded their reach to most of the shelters in Mecklenburg County and, after realizing how many transient children weren’t in shelters, to the school system. Participating schools in Mecklenburg and Union counties now prepare lists of names; volunteers at Bright Blessings then create gift bags that are delivered right back to the schools.
Each bag is age and gender appropriate and contains a large lap desk, two brand new books, toiletries, snacks, and two blankets, as well as a few small toys. The younger children are also given treat bags to hand out to their classmates as party favors; a long-awaited opportunity to partake in a ritual traditionally enjoyed by their friends.
Birthdays are not the only focus of the organization. Bright Blessings also has Bless-a-Baby (care baskets with critical items for babies born into homelessness), Gift of Literacy (collecting brand new books for birthday bags), and Gift of Care (healthy snacks, hygiene kits, and comfort items like blankets and stuffed animals) to provide love and attention to a population so greatly in need.
Bright Blessings serves around 8,000 local children each year, an impressive number made even more remarkable by the fact that the organization has only ten paid, part-time employees and manages to put 90 – 92% of funds back into the programs. They depend almost entirely on the many loyal volunteers (around 7,000) who wrap and deliver gifts, organize gift bags, host parties at the shelters, and collect donated items from their neighbors and community members. Church and civic groups often volunteer in the organization’s offices (aka the ‘Giving Village’) as large groups, but families and individuals also enjoy the opportunity to help others in such a tangible way.
Amy Cervantes remembers the exact moment she saw one young boy make the connection to their mission. “He was there with his family, making pillows for gifts, and wasn’t talkative. His mother noticed and asked him why he was so quiet. He turned to her and said, ‘I’m just thinking about the kid who has to lay on this pillow because he doesn’t have a bed.’”
So often we take our comforts for granted. But when we can see, touch, and hold in our hands those items a homeless child considers priceless – a blanket or a toothbrush or a brand new book – we become intricately connected to the mission of Bright Blessings. Those simple items represent an important lesson: We don’t have to wait until we’re parents to put the needs of others first. We can all make the pillows.
To learn more about Bright Blessings or to schedule time to volunteer, visit brightblessingsusa.org. They have an increased need for volunteers in the summer in order to prepare for the coming school year and would welcome your help.