When mom and veteran Sally Mary de Leon lost her Burien home in the housing market fallout, throwing a birthday party for her 11-year-old son Mark wasn’t even on her radar. Securing permanent shelter, providing food, and keeping her two kids safe were the top priorities.
Enter Birthday Dreams, a local nonprofit dedicated to bringing joy to homeless children with the gift of a birthday party. Volunteers donate presents, bake birthday cakes, and organize activities for kids experiencing homelessness all over the Seattle metropolitan area. Now 18, Mark describes the party as a pivotal moment in his young life.
“I was at a time where I felt like nobody even cared about us,” says Mark. “It was a sign that there’s still good people out there, and that really changed my view on things too.”
Before they became homeless, Mark and his sister, Bernadette, had witnessed years of domestic violence. Sally eventually divorced her husband to escape his abuse, but he continued to terrorize the family.
“He came around the house constantly, threatening to kill me because I wouldn’t go back with him,” says de Leon.
As she struggled to pay her rapidly rising mortgage on a single income, Sally realized that leaving the house behind was the best path forward. Not only would moving out relieve a financial burden, it would make the family’s whereabouts harder for her ex-husband to determine.
“It was easier for me to give up the house because we had so many bad memories there,” says de Leon. “I didn’t see our homelessness as a sad ending. I saw it as a beginning, neither good nor bad.”
Moving into transitional housing was nerve-wracking for Mark. As a shy kid, he didn’t know how to make friends with the other children. His Birthday Dreams party was the perfect icebreaker.
“As soon as I came in everyone said, ‘Oh, that’s the birthday boy’ and started talking to me,” says Mark. The kids played and ate, and Mark handed out goody bags at the end. “There was no worrying, no anxiety. I don’t remember anything negative about the day, it was only positive.”
Mark is still friends with many of the kids he met at his birthday party. Chris Spahn, executive director of Birthday Dreams, says facilitating friendships is a fundamental part of the organization’s mission.
“It’s a social equalizer for them,” says Spahn. “Homeless kids change schools a lot, so this is an opportunity to invite new people and celebrate. Maybe in turn, the invitation will be reciprocated.”
Over the past five years, the number of students experiencing homelessness in Seattle has nearly doubled. There were 4,280 homeless students in Seattle Public Schools during the 2016-17 school year, according to data collected by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Spahn attributes the dramatic increase to a combination of the rising cost of housing and bad luck. “There’s a misconception that these parents are on drugs or want to be homeless. But it’s just pure misfortune, and it could happen to anyone,” says Spahn.
After rising from poverty to extreme wealth, Andrea, a single mother of 13, never imagined that she could lose it all. For 14 years she lived with her family in a luxurious Mercer Island home, enjoying worldwide travel and designer clothes.
But as a result of unforeseen personal circumstances last April, Andrea and her three youngest children, ages 9, 11 and 16, found themselves homeless. They have been on a 2- to 3-year waitlist for housing, bouncing from couches to motels ever since.
“There is another face of homelessness. There are people who are very educated, very successful, people who have been able to give to others, and then suddenly they find themselves making poor financial choices and everything changes,” she says.
After transitioning from instability to a fairytale life back to instability, Andrea's 11-year-old son was having trouble coping with the social stigma of homelessness. The family connected with Birthday Dreams to help raise his spirits. Volunteers brought balloons, frosted cupcakes and organized games for her son to play with his school friends.
“It was the difference between despair and hopelessness to faith in people and sunshine in a sea of darkness,” she says. “It showed him that people really do care and want to help.”
Last year, Birthday Dreams brought birthday celebrations to 1,338 children living in shelters and transitional living facilities from Tacoma to Everett, and everywhere in between. Volunteers as young as 5 donate the time and resources needed to throw a great birthday party.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Birthday Dreams threw an unforgettable birthday party for several kids at a community space on Lake City Way.
Mercer Island mom of three Jennifer Dougan volunteers with her 16-year old daughter Marley every other Friday night as Birthday Dreams party coordinators. Marley organizes a team of about 10 volunteers and helps them set up activities including face-painting, craft stations, games and a bouncy house.
“It is so special for us to experience bringing pure joy to kids through something as simple as a birthday party,” says Dougan. “I think it’s really opened Marley up to thinking about others, and inspired her to want to make a difference in the world in a positive way.”
Young volunteers donate their birthday presents, hold school fundraising drives, bake cupcakes, assemble goody bags, and go shopping for special toys. Spahn says kids feel good helping, and are able to grasp the gravity of their peers’ circumstances.
“They understand, ‘What if I didn’t have a home, what if I didn’t get to celebrate my birthday?’” says Spahn.
Birthday Dreams will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a birthday party fundraiser on Saturday, May 4, at the Renton Pavilion Center featuring carnival games, cake baking contests, and opportunities to give back. Mark hopes that the organization receives the community support necessary to uplift homeless children for decades to come.
“I think everyone should be happy on their birthday,” says Mark. “No matter what age you’re turning, another year is a milestone. The fact that a kid gets to be happy, and have good people around them and not feel anything bad during that day, is worth everything.”
Want more ideas for helping? Read this: Simple ways your family can help homeless people
Learn about Veterans Community Housing Council, an organization founded by Sarry Mary de Leon.
And more on birthdays: Sleepover survival guide, tips on parties for kids on the autism spectrum, 150+ birthday party ideas. Laser tag and nerf wars: Have your cake and zap it, too! 5 places to check out