Volunteers bring birthday fun to homeless children on LI

Jamie Rapfogel started Birthday Wishes on Long Island Jamie Rapfogel started Birthday Wishes on Long Island in 2009. Often the party is neatly packaged as birthdays-in-a-box. (April 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Robin Dahlberg

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Jamie Rapfogel and her twin daughters sure know how to celebrate. They even have a name for themselves:

"We are the party people," said Jessica Rapfogel, 15.

At least once a month, through the Long Island chapter of Birthday Wishes, the nonprofit group Jamie Rapfogel leads, they throw birthday bashes for needy children they've never met, but you wouldn't know it from the party prep. The Rapfogels bake, wrap and deliver, loading the family car with craft supplies, party games, goody bags, gifts, food, decorations, paper goods and a personalized birthday cake destined for children in homeless shelters.

Birthday Wishes is a Boston-based organization that hosts parties for homeless children aged 1 to 18. It has chapters in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. Its 700 to 800 volunteers serve more than 175 shelters and transitional living housing facilities. In 2012, more than 19,000 children attended a Birthday Wishes party. The cause is right up Rapfogel's alley.

"I was always a fanatic about birthday parties," said Rapfogel, 46, of Woodbury. "I read about Birthday Wishes in a magazine article [in 2008]. I called them up and asked if I could bring Birthday Wishes to Long Island."

After getting the go-ahead, Rapfogel enlisted her mother, Norma Ehrlich, of Centerport, husband Alan, son Steven and her other daughter, Nicole, and started with a single shelter in Uniondale in 2009. Birthday Wishes has since partnered with 23 Long Island shelters, dozens of volunteers and numerous local businesses, schools and charitable organizations to bring 90 minutes of joy to children celebrating their birthdays. In 2012, the Long Island chapter helped 234 Long Island children celebrate.

"What started as a community service project with my family . . . has blossomed into a tremendous group effort of love and concern for the neediest of the Long Island community," Rapfogel said.

Ingredients for fun

Birthday Wishes has assigned volunteer party coordinators to seven of the 23 Long Island shelters it serves. The coordinators host a birthday party at their shelters one afternoon each month for all resident children with birthdays. Once the celebrants are determined, the party coordinators find out from shelter staff what the children are interested in -- Barbie dolls, Dora the Explorer, Spider-Man, sports, etc. -- and they design the parties around those themes and interests. They will also accommodate special requests.

All parties include a craft, a game, decorations, presents for the birthday boys and girls and personalized cakes.

Many of the supplies are donated, but some volunteers buy everything themselves. Birthday Wishes volunteers not only bring the supplies, they also engage the children, helping out with crafts, painting children's faces, making balloon animals or providing manicures, Rapfogel said. And they clean up after the party ends, she added.

Birthday Wishes brings the party to homeless children, but at the 16 shelters it serves where public access is not allowed, such as domestic violence shelters, or where space is limited, the party comes neatly packaged -- in the group's birthdays-in-a-box. Longtime Birthday Wishes volunteer Pat Vagianos assembles two or three of them every month.

"I put everything in [that] box that the mother or [shelter] social worker would need to throw a party," she said. Vagianos, 52, of Medford, buys all the supplies herself, then turns over the boxes to Rapfogel's mother, who delivers them to the recipients.

One of her drop-offs was to Cathy Phillips-Fuentes' twin boys, Benjamin and Stephen. They got birthdays-in-a-box for their 10th birthday in November. The family lost their home in March 2012 after one of the boys was seriously injured and Phillips-Fuentes quit her nursing job to care for him. The family, which now has permanent housing in Middle Island, initially lived in a shelter in Huntington and later moved into a motel.

"Norma [Ehrlich] brought the boxes to the motel when the kids were at school," recalled Phillips-Fuentes, 52. "Just the boxes themselves were beautiful."

They had been decorated by students at Syosset High School and personalized for each boy. "When the kids came home, they screamed," Phillips-Fuentes added. "They were so excited."

 

Homeless but not forgotten

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According to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, there are more than 600 homeless families, with children up to age 18, living in emergency and transitional housing in Suffolk and Nassau counties at any one time.

"The primary reason Long Island families become homeless is the lack of affordable rental housing," said Rosemary Dehlow, director of Long Island programs for Patchogue-based Community Housing Innovations Inc., one of the largest providers of emergency and transitional housing on Long Island. Its clients are part of Birthday Wishes celebrations. Many homeless parents may be undereducated, disabled or caring for a child with a disability, Dehlow said.

"They are unable to find jobs that pay enough to permit them to rent a minimally acceptable apartment at fair-market rental prices," she added.

The National Center for Family Homelessness reports that the stress and impact of being homeless are not lost on the families' youngest members. According to the center, 74 percent of homeless children worry that they will have no place to live, and 87 percent worry that something bad will happen to their family.

With Birthday Wishes, there is one thing they won't have to worry about: being forgotten on their special day.

"Hosting a birthday party is a very simple act," Dehlow said. "It makes [the kids] feel so special."

Birth of a birthday party

A group of friends is behind the Birthday Wishes concept. Lisa Vasiloff, Carol Swanger and Karen Yahara founded the nonprofit in Boston in 2002. All three women had young children for whom they enjoyed throwing "over-the-top" birthday parties, said Vasiloff, 46, who lives in Newton, Mass.

When Yahara learned that an 8-year-old boy she had been working with at a local shelter was not going to celebrate his birthday, she told Vasiloff and Swanger. The three sprang into action and got permission from the shelter not only to host a party for the boy but to organize birthday parties at the shelter on a monthly basis. The friends involved their husbands and children, and as the organization grew they reached out to other friends.

Vasiloff is the organization's president, and Swanger is a board member and party coordinator. Yahara died in 2006 but is remembered annually when the organization gives its Karen Yahara Awards to the volunteers who have best exhibited Yahara's sense of compassion and volunteerism.

Both Vasiloff and Rapfogel agree that Birthday Wishes volunteers get as much out of the parties and birthdays-in-a-box as the children they serve.

"The appreciation and the looks on the kids' faces," said Rapfogel. Noted Vasiloff: "It's transformational."

Jessica and Nicole Rapfogel can attest to that.

"We have seen a whole new side of birthdays," said Jessica. Most notably, she and her sister recognize that birthday parties are a way of acknowledging that a child is important.

"Birthday parties are no longer about the number of presents you get and the number of friends who come," Nicole said. "For kids who do not get a lot of attention because they are new to an area or to a school, [a party] says . . . you are special enough to be celebrated."

Volunteer spotlight: Pat Vagianos

For her 50th birthday, Pat Vagianos asked for -- and received -- Barbie dolls and remote-control cars. She wasn't having a childhood flashback or a midlife crisis; she needed the gifts for someone else's birthday.

"I can't think of anything better than a birthday party for a child," Vagianos said about her involvement with Birthday Wishes. And birthday parties call for birthday gifts.

The Medford resident is the Long Island chapter's longest-serving volunteer. She said she learned about the nonprofit in a magazine article on the organization's founders, who live in the Boston area. When she went to the group's website she discovered that there was a Long Island chapter.

Vagianos, 52, a manager at eyeglass manufacturer and distributor Luxottica, began her volunteer efforts with Birthday Wishes by donating leftover birthday party supplies she had at home and soon graduated to creating birthdays-in-a-box. She makes two or three of them a month with the help of her two sisters. Granddaughters Jillian Vanlare, 6, and her sister, Julia, 8, of Rochester, help Vagianos select appropriate gifts for the boxes, which have all the supplies needed for a celebration at homeless shelters where public access is restricted.

The Barbies and remote-control cars she asked for all ended up in a birthday box.

"I come from a large family, and we didn't have a lot of money growing up," she said. "We did not have elaborate birthday parties, but my mother always managed to make us feel special. She would make us a cake and then present us with a box that was filled with something unique to us . . . to let us know that we were special kids."

That's what Vagianos said she likes best about Birthday Wishes: "It focuses on making kids feel special."

Sign me up

Birthday Wishes is an organization for people who love to make children feel happy, worthy and special. Its Long Island office is looking for volunteers to serve as party coordinators, deliver birthdays-in-a-box, donate gifts and party supplies, wrap presents, bake cakes and cupcakes and create goody bags. To volunteer, visit the group's website, birthdaywishes.org, or its Facebook page, facebook.com/pages/Birthday-Wishes-of-Long-Island/163633900366468

Contact: Jamie Rapfogel, Long Island coordinator, 631-659-2993

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