When A Birthday Celebration Means More Than A Party

Most children spend 364 days thinking about how exciting their next birthday will be. They think about the cake they’ll eat, the friends they’ll play with and all the gifts and cards they’ll receive.

For most kids, a birthday party is special. But for the children at UMOM, Arizona’s largest homeless family shelter, “special” is understatement.

“It’s pretty common that most of the kids have not had any type of birthday party or celebration for them,” says UMOM Youth Services Coordinator Sara Jensen, who runs the shelter’s Teen Activities Program (TAP).

In the United States, approximately 1 in 3 people experiencing homelessness is under the age of 18, and approximately 1 in 6 is under age of 6.The TAP teaches life, social, and communication skills through mentorship. Beyond that, it cultivates a sense of normalcy -- and even fun -- for young people who could use some of both.

“That’s kind of the goal of the program, to try and take away the fact that they’re living in a shelter,” Jensen says. “That’s why we incorporate the birthday celebrations, because we want to give them the feeling of, you’re important.”

“Especially with our teens,” she continues. “A lot of them tend to take on parenting roles, because they have to help care for their younger siblings. We try to help them feel like a kid.” Birthdays are universal, regardless of socioeconomic status, and teens can easily relate to the desire to celebrate one’s birthday.

Each month, Jensen makes a poster listing the shelter's upcoming birthdays. Then everyone enjoys cupcakes and birthday games, and the birthday boy or girl can pick out a donated gift from TAP’s “store,” which stocks donations of brand new items. Last year, UMOM received hundreds of handmade cards, which were sent by young people through’s Birthday Mail campaign. In 2013, 83,356 cards were mailed to shelters around the US and Canada.

“Especially if younger kids are making [cards], it’s difficult for them to understand the impact they’re making, especially since they don’t see where it’s going and who they’re helping,” Jensen says. “But we really appreciate the time they’ve put into it, and it really does brighten the kids’ days who get it.”

This year, Birthday Mail is back, and bigger -- and more powerful--than ever. Johnson & Johnson is even donating the cost of a card ($1) for each photo submitted through its Donate a Photo app.*

Sharon Pederson, UMOM’s Resource Development Manager, delivers 200 birthday cards for the shelter’s monthly birthday celebration for its young residents. Pederson and the children and UMOM eagerly await more donated cards as she recalls the reaction from kids and parents last year. There were “lots of smiles,” she says. “Lots of happiness.”

*Johnson & Johnson has curated a list of trusted causes, and you can donate a photo to one cause, once a day. Each cause will appear in the app until it reaches its goal, or the donation period ends. If the goal isn't reached, the cause will still get a minimum donation.