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Boston College School of Social Work
Center for Social Innovation

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Researching Magic: Exploring the Impact of Birthday Celebrations for Children in Homelessness

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FEBRUARY 3, 2015

The new year has brought about a new work collaborative between the Center for Social Innovation (CSI) and Birthday Wishes, an organization dedicated to providing homeless children with the magic of a birthday party. The Center is excited about partnering with Birthday Wishes in this yearlong exploratory evaluation and to work towards demonstrating their impact and support their overall work.

Lisa Vasiloff, Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger, founders of Birthday Wishes, started the organization with one mission in mind: to provide birthday parties for homeless children. In 2002, they started to fulfill this mission in one shelter in Newton, MA, and only a few months later, they had already expanded to eight additional shelters. Today, Birthday Wishes serves children in over 185 homeless shelters and transitional living sites in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Long Island, New York.  Their program involves both onsite birthdays and a unique birthday-in-box program, which provides birthday supplies for shelters and families. Last year, the organization successfully provided more than 18,000 homeless children the celebration of a birthday through these programs. Utilizing volunteers and community support as key resources, Birthday Wishes was able to serve homeless children in a unique and innovative way by providing them with an impactful and memorable birthday experience that includes childhood favorites like cake, gifts, games, music and crafts.

Despite the difficult circumstances homeless children face, they still deserve to feel valued and uplifted. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness (2011), “Approximately 1.6 million children will experience homelessness over the course of a year” (p. 1). These children and their families are ultimately without housing, yet homelessness results in much more loss than just shelter. It can lead to problems with children’s physical health, mental health, safety, development, and their educational attainment (National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). These factors can negatively affect a child and family’s overall well-being. Programs such as Birthday Wishes allow us to combat these problems and provide opportunities for kids to feel ‘normal’ and have a special day that they may otherwise be unable to experience.

In addition to making the homeless children feel valued, Birthday Wishes provides volunteers a unique opportunity to give back to those in need. Birthdays are such a special day especially for children. It is something that they understand as important to themselves and to others. As a result, it provides them with the desire to give to other children who may be without this special celebration. One fourth grade volunteer class said it like this,We hate homework, love to eat, and we enjoy our birthdays. We would like children in shelters to enjoy their birthdays too” (Students in 4C & Mrs. Canon, David Elementary School Holden, MA). Birthday Wishes provides this opportunity for children to connect with and engage in volunteerism, creating yet another positive aspect of their work.

While Birthday Wishes has received overwhelmingly positive responses over the years and consistently meets their mission to provide birthday parties to homeless children, the question is what impact their mission is really having on children and their families. The CSI and Birthday Wishes have entered this partnership to understand this and conduct research to determine the true impact of their programs. With the CSI’s evaluation, Birthday Wishes will be able to further address this issue of impact through data collection from multiple perspectives, examining the conditions when the program is successful, and using a comparison group to better understand program impact. This step towards more extensive evaluation will allow Birthday Wishes to analyze and improve upon their strategy and their understanding of how they are affecting those they serve. Together, Birthday Wishes and the CSI will strive to demonstrate the impact of birthday programming for children experiencing homelessness in order to continue to make a difference for this vulnerable population.