“You get to witness both sides of this, Ja’han. You get to hear about a great organization, but also how we are literally rising from the ashes,” Schinnell Leake recently told me.
As the head of Extra-Ordinary Birthdays, a nonprofit she founded in Maryland in 2010, Leake is using her years of experience as a party planner to now offer homeless children and parents in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region ― an area plagued by homelessness ― experiences and memories that are typically reserved for more privileged families.
But just days before we spoke, Leake discovered her professional world had literally been razed to the ground. Her College Park office became collateral damage in early December after an arsonist targeted a neighboring business. Leake arrived at the scene of the crime to find her workspace unrecognizable ― all of her awards, documents and photos were reduced to indiscernible gray flakes flitting along the floor. But she refused to let the devastation keep her organization from doing its mission and asserted the fire has enlivened an even greater sense of commitment to Extra-Ordinary Birthdays’ cause.
“We’re being challenged to walk the walk that we hope for these families,” said Leake, who has previously contributed to HuffPost.
“We tell them we’re offering them hope in spite of their circumstances, and they do this every day,” she added. “So we have this circumstance, and we have to keep moving on because they’re watching us.”
It’s this greater mission to be an example of determination and persistence to which Leake and Extra-Ordinary Birthdays is especially devoted. The organization’s aim, beyond offering homeless families an afternoon of joy, is, as she explained, to instill a sense of empowerment in families forced to exist ― and to try to cobble a meaningful life together ― in environments that are largely out of their control.
“When you think about homeless mothers, and that’s usually who we’re supporting, so much empowerment is stripped away from them in these shelters,” Leake said. “They’re very institutionalized. So the first thing we do is ask them, ‘What is it that you want to do for your child’s birthday?’”
Leake said personalizing the events is not only what makes her organization unique — it’s what makes it successful. While other nonprofits host parties for homeless children, Extra-Ordinary Birthdays is dedicated to creating celebrations that feature the children’s specific requests.
These kids don’t need to scratch another child’s name out of one more thing. Schinnell Leake
The children select everything from the theme of the party, to the food that’s served, to the party’s activities.
“You need to meet them where they are with genuineness and not a level of superiority,” Leake noted.
The organization purposefully shies away from utilizing large groups of volunteers for fear that its parties may seem far more like staged events than genuine celebrations.
When it comes to birthday gifts, the organization is committed to providing “the latest things ... not things that were popular three or four years ago,” Leake said.
Any books donated to the nonprofit must also be new.
“These kids don’t need to scratch another child’s name out of one more thing,” she added.
And no matter what, Leake says her staff always attempts to defer credit from themselves toward the children’s parents.
In reflecting on her own upbringing and how it influenced her, Leake recalled her mother keeping a stash of “blessing money” in the car as they drove around the city. When she saw a homeless person on the side of the road, Leake’s mother would give them money, no questions asked.
Years later, her daughter is presiding over her own program of generosity, using those moments as her inspiration.
“That was the seed God planted in me,” she said, “and I didn’t even know it.”
Despite the recent setback, Leake remains undeterred in her commitment to center the organization around what matters most: the families it serves.
“We’re embracing the fact that the losses were material,” she said, “because the heart of EOB lies within me as its founder, the community, the volunteers and everyone coming together to continue to make this organization happen.”
Extra-Ordinary Birthdays has launched a GoFundMe campaign in order to rebuild its offices. Click here to learn more about the campaign.