Like most moms, Paige Chenault has birthday parties down to a science. (Activities? Check. Decorations? Got ’em. Party favors? On it.) But unlike most moms, she throws several hundred a year. As the founder of the Dallas-based nonprofit The Birthday Party Project, Chenault and an army of volunteers host monthly parties for children living in homeless shelters. “These are kids who know only trauma and crisis in transition. What we do is actually provide a sense of normalcy for them.”
Chenault got the idea for The Birthday Party Project while pregnant with her daughter, Lizzie, who is now 8. She was reading an article about birthday parties, dreaming about the cool bashes she’d throw for her kid (as a former wedding planner, Chenault knows a thing or two about pulling off amazing celebrations). Then she picked up another magazine, where a harrowing image of a poor child in Haiti was staring back at her. “I was pregnant, my hormones were going crazy, and I was just overcome with emotion thinking about him,” she says.
While it took a few years to launch The Birthday Party Project, to date the nonprofit has thrown more than 3,500 parties in 12 cities. They enlist volunteer “birthday enthusiasts” in each city who set up, decorate and break down parties in honor of all kids marking a birthday that month. These 10,000-strong enthusiasts paint faces, lead dance parties, hand out gifts and dole out plenty of hugs and high-fives.
“Every kid has a birthday, right?” Chenault says. “Just because you’re in a homeless shelter, that shouldn’t keep you from being able to celebrate who you are, why you’re here and what you can become.”
“When we line up all our birthday kids, we call them by name. It is super-important to me that we identify every single person, so they know that we have seen them and that we are going to celebrate them. I’m probably most proud of the way our birthday enthusiasts treat the families and children. They do it with such dignity.”
“We’re giving moms a little bit of a break and a little sense of fun and joy at a time that’s crappy and hard. A lot of grit is involved with getting up every day and taking a three-hour bus ride to work two jobs to get your three kids out of homelessness. If we can alleviate a little of their burden [in addition to celebrating the kids], I’m okay with that.”
“On her days off from school, Lizzie likes to be in our office. We’ve given her the title of children’s coordinator—she even has business cards—and she’ll work in the back, organizing toys. She likes to go to the parties and bring her friends. She’s very good about making sure everybody has something [to play with], but then she gets in there and makes friends with the other kids. She sees that these kids are just like her. They may be in different circumstances, but we can all find common ground.”