There are more than 800 children living in homeless shelters on Long Island at this moment. The average age of these children is only 9 years old.
Homelessness has a tremendous impact on a child’s emotional needs and overall health. Living in a homeless shelter can be frightening, and parents and case managers work diligently to try and create as much normalcy as possible. Family rituals play an important role in a child’s development, and Jamie Rapfogel of Woodbury is helping these families who have fallen on hard times to brighten these children’s lives by honoring their special day with a birthday party.
Jamie works part time at Staci Leavitt Mind and Body, Inc. in Plainview as a counselor to women and girls, but she also wanted to volunteer in the community and include her children in the process.
“I was looking for something to do with my kids,” Jamie says about her children, Jessica, Nicole and Steven. “They had already started their own organization called Let’s Make a Difference when they were in [elementary school] and were raising money to donate to charities.”
Jamie read about Birthday Wishes, a Massachusetts-based non-profit that was founded in 2002 by three mothers who were looking for volunteer work they could do with their children. Jamie felt this was a unique and invaluable way to help the community while spending quality time with Jessica, Nicole and Steven.
In Massachusetts, Birthday Wishes has grown to include more than 400 volunteers that facilitate parties in more than 85 shelters. Jamie wanted to bring the same concept to Long Island. She traveled to Boston for training and began the LI chapter of Birthday Wishes a year ago.
After training, Jamie’s first call was to Rosemary Dehlow, director of Community Housing Innovations (CHI), LI’s largest emergency housing provider. When Rosemary heard what Jamie wanted to do, she said, “Come meet me right now.”
“All children, regardless of their family situation should be able to celebrate their birthday in a joyful way with the people they love,” Jamie says. The benefits are multiplied by giving other children living in the shelter —who rarely get to attend a party—a time to have fun and play.
Jamie and her children began bringing birthday parties to a CHI shelter in Hempstead, and because of their success, have added another location in Huntington Station. Twice a month, Jamie and her children deliver presents, balloons, goody bags, themed decorations and a birthday cake. They play party games and make crafts giving every child the opportunity to participate. Jamie speaks to the mother or case manager prior to the party about what presents the birthday child wants. “Some of the children have never had a birthday party or celebrated their birthday even once in their lives,” she explains.
Jamie said that her children have developed friendships with some of the children. “The children [at the shelter] wait by the door for my kids. It changes your vision of homelessness.”
Jamie can’t be at all the parties, but she makes sure that every child celebrates their birthday, by delivering Birthday Boxes to CHI shelters. Jamie explained that a Birthday Box contains all of the birthday trimmings and presents ready for the child’s mother or case manager to put on the party.
Jamie is seeking volunteers and donations to help her continue to expand her reach to more shelters. Right now, she pays for almost everything out of her own pocket, does the shopping and bakes most of the cakes herself. Birthday Wishes is growing rapidly and Jamie has big aspirations for the company. “My ultimate goal is to have a coordinator for each shelter so I can move onto another shelter.
“Birthday Wishes lets every child remember that the day they were born was special.”
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