Nonprofit creates 'birthday boxes' for homeless children

HICKSVILLE, New York -- Over the past year, many people have been forced to spend their birthdays alone in quarantine.

No slices of birthday cakes passed among loved ones. No gifts in a pile to open after blowing out the candles.

For many children living in homeless shelters, however, such solitary parties are painfully familiar.

"A lot of these kids have never seen their name on a birthday cake," said Jamie Rapfogel, volunteer director of Birthday Wishes of Long Island. "You can ask an 8-year-old, 'when's your birthday,' and they don't even know. They need to feel special, and they need to feel that they matter and that they belong."

Rapfogel first learned in a magazine article about Birthday Wishes, a nonprofit group that provides homeless children and their families with monthly birthday parties.

Rapfogel reached out to the Massachusetts-based organization and launched a Long Island-based chapter.

She started small, collecting birthday supplies in her basement to give to homeless shelters.

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Now 12 years later, Birthday Wishes of Long Island works with 85 shelters serving about 120 children each month.

Since the pandemic, the nonprofit began to offer "birthday boxes," ensuring social distancing while providing everything a child needs to celebrate.

"It's a colorfully wrapped box filled with party goods, juice boxes, the makings of a birthday cake, and of course presents," Rapfogel said. "Everything that a kid needs to celebrate their birthday."

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The way it works is volunteers at the nonprofit's headquarters in Hicksville receive a list, including the child's name, age, and birthday requests.

"These kids don't always get to celebrate their birthdays," said Debbie Rabin, a volunteer. "We do take it for granted and just the fact that we can do so little and give them a happy day is just great."

Even though the group's shelves are teeming with toys, donations are always needed to make sure they have what they need for every child.

"Homeless kids have often felt that they are invisible and they don't care about them," Rapfogel said. "I think that just us showing up monthly meant so much to them. Our mission is that we provide birthday parties to children because we believe that everybody deserves the right to feel special on their birthday."

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