My daughter, Olivia, has plenty of toys. So when the earthquake hit Haiti, I suggested that instead of getting presents she could ask guests at her sixth-birthday party to bring donations for the American Refugee Committee (ARC) to benefit Haiti. She didn't even pause before shouting, "Yes!"
For the big day, we served a cake scrawled with "Thank You for Helping Haiti." The kids learned how the money raised would help Haitian youth and made cards for Haitian children. Now Olivia says she always wants to celebrate her birthday this way, adding us to the many families, like those below, who have thrown fun, creative charity parties.
The Shaw Family
Birthday Girl Daylee, 11
Her parents, Kiersten and Damon, do a lot of charity work for animal nonprofits, so it wasn't a surprise when Daylee, a passionate young animal lover, asked her guests to bring either dog or cat treats or cash donations for her birthday bash at the Oregon Humane Society (OHS). Like many Humane Societies around the country, OHS hosts parties on-site. Daylee's guests had a blast turning fleece, ribbons, plastic balls, and shower-curtain rings into homemade cat toys. During a shelter tour, they stopped to play in the cattery, where each child picked out a favorite feline to give her toy to. The festivities wrapped up with a three-tiered cake covered in fondant paw prints and marzipan animals, made by a family friend.
The Ronan Family
Millville, New Jersey
Birthday Boy Shawn, 5
Because Shawn is wild about everything military, his parents, Michelle and Shawn, were planning an army-themed party for his fifth birthday when Michelle stumbled across the website for Adopt A U.S. Soldier (AAUSS), a nonprofit that connects American troops overseas with volunteers who boost their spirits through letters, e-mails, and care packages. Michelle didn't even get a chance to ask Shawn to forgo presents. The minute she told him about the program, he announced that he didn't want any birthday gifts for himself. Instead, he asked his guests -- all 100 of them -- to bring a small item, such as socks, magazines, or DVDs, that he and his mom could mail to their newly matched soldier in Iraq, who would distribute the gifts among the platoon. Michelle incorporated the military theme into every detail. The party featured obstacle courses, water-balloon "target practice," a craft table featuring yellow-ribbon cutouts, and a pi?ata in the shape of an army truck. And, when two U.S. soldiers -- family friends who had recently returned from duty -- showed up in full uniform to surprise Shawn and thank him for his donation, Michelle says Shawn was overcome with pride.
The Warren Family
North Attleboro, Massachusetts
Birthday Girl Brielle, 6
Kesha Warren, Brielle's mom, says that when she and her husband, Ty, were growing up, money was scarce and birthday presents were a rare luxury. But with Ty's lucrative job as a defensive end for the NFL's Denver Broncos, the couple found that providing for their own children was almost too easy. "You always want more for your kids," says Kesha, "but I'd take the gifts, opened only hours before, and throw them in the basement without anyone realizing they were gone." So for Brielle's sixth birthday, Kesha suggested a donations-only party to support Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit organization that provides clothing and other basic needs to underprivileged kids in Massachusetts.
Brielle wasn't sold on the idea of a no-gifts celebration until Kesha gave her free rein on the venue. She chose a cake-decorating party at a local bakery where she and her friends donned chef hats and aprons, toured the kitchen, and got a lesson on decorating before practicing their new skills with a piping bag on a cake of their own. Instead of a gift table, Brielle set out plastic tubs to collect new underwear and pajamas her guests brought to donate to Cradles to Crayons. Like many parents, Kesha wondered if a no-gifts event might breed resentment. Instead, the opposite occurred. "As those tubs started spilling over, Brielle became so excited and proud," says Kesha.
Groups That Make Charity Parties Easy
Half the Sky Foundation
Founded to aid orphaned children in China, this nonprofit provides step-by-step party how-tos, including wording and logos for invitations and thank-you cards. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to get started. Be sure to e-mail pictures of your child's bash to be featured on the site. halfthesky.org
Each child at your party colors and decorates a doll ($25 for a kit) for a needy child here or in another country. The nonprofit then sanitizes the dolls and sends them on. The website even lets you track your creation's travels. happydoll.org
Kids Caring 4 Kids
Kendall Ciesemier, then 11, founded this group to help children in Africa who are impacted by AIDS. The $25 party-planning kit includes a DVD that shows guests how their donations make a difference, easy planning tips, and a CD with sample activities. kidscaring4kids.org
Milk + Bookies
Kids select and inscribe books that they then donate to underserved children in their community. The party kit "bookies box" ($30) includes balloons, "I donated" stickers, bookmarks, and more. milkandbookies.org
Ryan's Well Foundation
This organization, established in 2001 by 9-year-old Ryan Hreljac, brings safe water and improved sanitation to the developing world. You'll find lots of party ideas and free downloadables as well as tools for tracking donations and tips for educating party guests on water conservation. ryanswell.ca
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.