Extra-Ordinary Birthdays

Bryant toddled into his second birthday party clad in a tiny dress shirt and striped tie. The table before him was bedecked with a black-and-white-checkered tablecloth, a tray of neon-frosted cupcakes, and a set of shiny new Hot Wheels ready for the racing.

He glanced up at his mother for the go-ahead; when she gave him the “yup, this is for you” nod, he made a fast break for the toys and sweets.

Bryant spent the next hour giggling, crafting, and relishing mouthfuls of cake alongside party guests. He fashioned cars out of hand-painted toilet paper rolls and formed a human train that chugged all over the room. We slipped a foam birthday visor over his silky black hair, but it soon fell off — he was dancing too hard.

He decorated his birthday visor and settled in for some coloring.

When the candles were blown out and Bryant’s party over, one truth remained: He’s one of more than 6,500 homeless children living in the District of Columbia, according to a 2014 report. He’s one of nearly 2.5 million homeless children — that’s one in every 30 — in the United States.

Amid his mother’s ongoing struggle to secure permanent housing for he and his older sister, Bryant was able to celebrate his birthday with help from Extra-Ordinary Birthdays, a DC-area non-profit that orchestrates parties for homeless children and their families.

Hosted in the cafeterias, play rooms, and classrooms of shelters all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia, these celebrations are expertly designed to inspire imagination and boost self-worth so that the birthday boy or girl — regardless of their circumstances — has a space in which to feel valued.

Important note: I love kids. I started babysitting at 11, was a frequent flyer in my mom’s pre-k classroom, and have been commonly referred to as “The Baby Whisperer” among close friends.

Despite this body of evidence, when a friend recommended I volunteer with EOB, I hesitated:

What if I couldn’t make it fun for them?

What if it’s all just too sad?

What if I couldn’t — at the end of these parties — successfully sneak all of the kids home with me?

(This was a real thought that crossed my mind — I figured I could sleep five comfortably on a queen-size air mattress situated in the living room of my Columbia Heights apartment.)

My fears were quelled the moment I met EOB’s founder Schinnell Leake, who—after equipping me with my standard party apron — threw her arms around me and said “thank you.”

I hadn’t even done anything yet.

Schinnell (left) in action.

Over the next hour I watched her move deftly among three parties occurring simultaneously. It was a truly chaotic scene: boys in mud-green army paint whizzing past, toddlers fleeing from parents, girls tactfully negotiating who’d hold the Elsa wand next. (I’d hoped it’d be me.)

On top of the carefully planned and customized birthday décor, games, snacks, and goody bags — the party’s theme is chosen by the child and generally ranges from Spider-man to Frozen — each EOB party budget affords one special gift for the birthday boy or girl.

Yet, we, the party staff, rarely deliver it.

She instructs volunteers to discreetly slip the present to the parent, so they may provide for their child. So they, too, can feel confident, empowered, and cherished. She works tirelessly to weave together these seemingly small but critical pieces (like hand-crafting a pin-the-nose-on-Elmo poster) to ensure that when the party begins, its participants can turn their focus to the fun.

EOB’s mission inspires in families the kind of feelings we’re all found wanting: warmth, surprise, dignity, hope. With her endless vigor and dedication, Schinnell constantly reminds us that feeling valued is every child’s — and every person’s — basic right.

On December 1, L’Oréal Paris will award $10,000 to ten exceptional women —Schinnell included — so they may continue to bolster their organizations and communities through service. If she’s chosen as the 2015 National Honoree, EOB will receive an additional $25,000 in support of homeless children and their families.

I hope you’ll consider casting an online vote for Schinnell each and every day through Friday, November 20, when the polls close.

That first day I spent in a shelter cafeteria wasn’t sad, not in the slightest. Since then, Schinnell has reminded me over and again that kids, despite their circumstances, are kids. They’re resilient and creative. They’re silly and loving. Their young, vulnerable hearts are open — and waiting to be filled up.

I like quick wit, short stories, and old movies.