There are over 2.5 million homeless children in the United States. Most of these kids don't know what it's like to have a birthday that celebrates them. This inspired Shinnell Leake, founder of Extra-Ordinary Birthdays (EOB), to make it her mission to transform the lives of homeless children by creating personalized birthdays that make them feel valued and inspire moments of delight in their lives.

Shinnell knew the importance of birthdays. While growing up, she had a mother who always made her birthdays special. She felt grateful for everything she had and knew there were kids who were less fortunate than she, so she was always very active in the community to help others in need. She volunteered for Meals on Wheels, programs for the hungry, toy drives and other causes. It was Toys for Tots, a wonderful organization that gives gifts to needy children at Christmas, that gave Shinnell the idea to start Extra-Ordinary Birthdays. She wanted homeless kids to not only be given gifts, but to be able to choose the gifts they are given. And to also be given a second, very special gift - a birthday party - complete with family and friends, cake, decorations, photos and games that celebrates them.

"Extra-Ordinary brings the simple joy of birthday parties to homeless children - from babies to teens in shelters in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, and EOB works hard to accomplish this every month, giving them a sense of recognition and value on their special day, while creating a time of togetherness for families," says Schinnell. She feels it's important for these children to be able to do something normal, even if their current circumstances aren't normal.

Birthdays matter to kids. Extra-Ordinary Birthdays works to alleviate the pressure on homeless parents who usually don't have the resources to celebrate this milestone, and it supports these families by bringing all the elements of normalcy and joy that a birthday celebration is able to provide. The children can make a wish list of up to three items they would love to have, and are given at least one of the items. They are also given a brand new book. "If a child is wishing for Spiderman, and he gets Spiderman, the joy that he experiences when he gets exactly what he wants goes to the layering of self-worth that we want to deliver," Schinnell says.

Each birthday boy or girl has the joy of experiencing an "hour of magic" with a special party and a personalized cake. The EOB team talks with the parents at homeless shelters to plan each birthday party and customize the experience, so that the parents and children get to choose a party theme, who they invite, the cake and gift. This approach gives the parents a sense of ownership and helps empower them in being part of their child's birthday. There are decorations, party favors, a birthday cake and healthy snacks. Volunteer photographers come to take photos, and a photo book is created for the child to keep.

Since 2010, EOB has been providing celebrations at nine shelters throughout the Washington metropolitan area. They hold about 95-125 birthday parties a year, with an average cost of $175 per party. Serving families living in homeless shelters, preschool programs for homeless children, transitional and temporary housing and domestic violence programs, Extra-Ordinary Birthdays' mission is successfully carried out through staff, volunteers and partners who share ideas, talents, services and resources. In addition, EOB works collaboratively with families, shelters, organizations and communities throughout the area to make the events happen.

Volunteers can participate in projects that help children and organize events to run successfully. EOB offers kids who are 16+ the opportunity to earn their service-learning hours by volunteering. There are also fundraising events such as Do Goody bag day and book drives, and fashionable tees are sold from the website. EOB accepts donations in the form of money or goods, such as food, books, supplies and other necessities or services.

EOB also manages two additional programs - a recognition program and a literacy program - to help support homeless families and move them toward a better future. The recognition program, Extra-Ordinary Moms (EOM), was started to inspire homeless mothers by motivating them and building their feeling of self-worth through positive reinforcement, personal development and membership in a supportive community.

The EOM program encourages determined mothers to feel proud of the progress they make each day to be the best moms they can be with their resources. The program supports their efforts by offering an opportunity to learn from other women in birthday party workshops. They also work with the advisory board, receive a personal self-care kit and attend a special tea that recognizes their efforts in moving forward despite their circumstances.

The EOM program is in honor of Schinnell's recognition as a L'Oreal Paris 2015 National Women of Worth Honoree. The Women of Worth award is inspired by the L'Oreal Paris belief that "every woman is worth it," and honors the intrinsic beauty and worth of extraordinary everyday women. It is meant to celebrate women making a difference in the community. This is just one of many awards Schinnell has won since founding her nonprofit.

EOB's literacy program, Extra-Ordinary Readers (EOR), helps homeless children build self confidence and have a feeling of self-worth, and encourages them to be forward thinking in order to move toward a bright future. Each child who receives an Extraordinary Birthdays celebration is also treated to a very special party favor - a brand new, age-appropriate book, chosen especially for them by a party planning team. EOR supports literacy for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, and gives children pride in ownership of a new book. Books are collected for the program through their annual book drive and their Amazon book drive wish list.

Through parent evaluations, EOB is able to continually monitor how they are doing to make sure they are delivering on their mission - to provide personalized birthday parties that make the children feel special. They want children to know that they matter. And they want them to know that they are valued ... no matter what their circumstance.

If you'd like to get involved or just learn more, visit extraordinarybirthdays.org


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Jennifer Poole is Assistant Editor for Washington Parent