100 Dallas Creatives: No. 68 Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the whos and whys.
As Paige Chenault opens the door to the Birthday Party Project's new office in Addison, she greets me with a warm smile and hug. The office is full of boxes packed high with birthday presents and goody bag treats, as well as volunteers sorting through them. Cheanult's entire staff is wearing BPP T-shirts that read, "Eat. Sleep. Party. Repeat."
BPP visits 12 agencies each month and each kid who has a birthday that month receives a cake, birthday gift, and a birthday badge. The other kids in the agency celebrate, too. In June alone, BPP celebrated with more than 500 kids.
A retired wedding planner, Cheanult has the innate talent for planning a big event, but also the passion and kindness for being a part of other people's celebrations to back the talent up. But from speaking with her, it became apparent it's not the birthday the nonprofit is celebrating. It's the children.
As Chenault begins to speak about the birthday parties and the individual children, her eyes become watery.
"I have a lot of favorite stories. Each of our agencies are so very unique. We meet with," she pauses. "God, I'm going to get emotional." She continues, "We get to party with kids that are coming out of domestic violence. We get to party with kids whose moms are being rehabilitated from sex trafficking. We get to party with families that are truly just in this chronic homeless system. And so I feel like we have this unique opportunity to serve these kids and meet their needs right where they are."
Birthday Party Project
Where did this idea come from?
I was pregnant with my daughter and I was on an airplane reading a magazine about kids' birthday parties and I was just dreaming about all the great stuff that I could do for my daughter, just because I was an event planner and a wedding planner, so I thought, 'If anybody can throw a big bash, it was going to be me for my kid.' And it was really exciting to think about how I could celebrate her. And then on that same plane ride, I picked up another magazine article about kids in Haiti that just didn't have anything and it occurred to me, these kids, not only would they not have shelter or food, but they also would never have a celebration the way I knew I could celebrate my daughter, so that's kind of where that idea came from and it really started stirring in me.
So about the time I got home from my trip, I told my husband that we were going to start throwing birthday parties for homeless kids. He was encouraging and supportive from the very beginning. Because I was pregnant and planning so many events, we realized if we were going to do it well, we couldn't just start creating something then, so we did a lot of research around town. We got an idea of what the culture looked like from transitional housing to permanent supportive housing to homelessness, that it's not just this chronic homelessness, it includes domestic violence, it includes couch surfing, all of those things. We volunteered for a couple of years at different agencies to kind of get an understanding of the community we were serving.
Who is your donor base?
One hundred percent of all donations that come from the public go straight to throwing and hosting and executing these birthday parties. We have people that participate in a program called "Share Your Birthday" where you can go online and create your own fundraising page and say in lieu of gifts, I'm sharing my birthday with the kids in the Birthday Party Project. [Then] people donate in honor of your birthday. We have 4-year-olds that do that; we have 40-year-olds that do that. We have kids that ask instead of bringing gifts, that they bring supplies and gifts for kids for the Birthday Party Project, so we receive a lot of in-kind donations, as well and you can find that on our wishlist on our website and then the money of course, we still operate at that 100 percent.
What's your favorite story from doing this?
One of them was at Genesis Women's Shelter and we got a call that morning of our party saying that a family was just moving in and there was an 8-year-old boy. Let's just call him "David." So David was moving in. We needed to add a gift; we needed to add a cake to that day, make sure he had a birthday badge. We showed up to the agency that night, threw a great party. David was beaming when we told him we were celebrating his birthday. I remember pinning him, putting the badge on him and his mom came down as we were getting ready to sing happy birthday. I looked him in the eye and I said, 'David, happy birthday.' And his mom is behind me just weeping.
I said, 'Are you OK?' And she says, 'Thank you so much. His birthday was yesterday and I completely forgot because I was working so hard to make sure my family was safe as we moved into this agency. I didn't have time to celebrate him.'
For me, it was one of those validating moments that we were doing exactly what we should be doing. We were alleviating the pressure that this mom felt to find resources and time to celebrate her kids, when really what she needed to be focusing on was keeping her and her family safe and away from violence, and then we got to celebrate this child as he moved into a very uncertain time in his life being in this agency where he didn't know where he was or why he was there. For us to be this next shining light for him was really powerful for me.
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