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Birthday Parties that Give Back

My seven-year-old salivates when I start talking about planning his next birthday party. Gimme, gimme, gimme: All he thinks about are the gifts. I try to remind him the day is about celebrating his life and creating memories with his friends, but somehow the message gets lost in the fantasies of what he’s going to add to his massive collection of toys. How do we teach our kids to shift their  focus outward?


It’s a lesson Anne Arundel County mom Nadine Smith tries to teach her kids Sophie, 8, and Sam, 10. The family usually asks guests not to bring gifts, but if they do, the children pick a favorite and donate the rest to Baltimore City’s Headstart Program.
“We have done it since they were born and they’re just used to it,” the Smith says. “I tell them look at all you have; stop and look around. Now they don’t think twice about it.”

Last year at Sophie’s seventh birthday party, picured above, the Smiths used the money they would have spent on party favors to endow a scholarship at the Good Samaritan School in St. Marc, Haiti. “Instead of spending that money on junk, we sent a child to school for one year in Haiti,” Smith said.

To make the children feel included in the giving spirit, she took a group photo of the party guests and had them sign a mat. The photo now hangs in the Haitian school.

Annapolis mom Amy Raab, who owns Love Life Images Studio in Savage Mills, used her daughter Sophie’s seventh birthday to raise funds for Operation Smile. The worldwide children’s medical charity provides free surgeries for children with facial deformities.
The photographer regularly hosts portrait parties in her studio, and asked guests at her daughter’s party to make a donation in lieu of bringing a gift.

“In the past we have tried to make our own children’s parties ‘no gifts,’ but people don’t take it seriously and bring gifts anyway. Our kids already have so much stuff. We are constantly giving away the things they don’t play with.

“If they have 10 kids at their party, they really don’t need 10 new gifts in addition to what their family members give them. I also want to make it easy on the parents. Just showing up at a party is sometimes hard enough. Who doesn’t loathe having to go shopping to find a gift for a classmate their child barely knows? Is it reasonably priced, do they already have it, will it clutter up their house?

How did Raab “sell it” to her daughter? “We assured her she would get everything on her wish list from us, her aunts and grandparents if she would give the rest to charity. All we had to do was show her the before-and-after pictures on the Operation Smile website [operationsmile.org] and she was so excited to do it. She also thought it was cool—all the rock stars do it—trendy and different.”
Okay, there is the rock star angle, but I’m still not sure the idea will go over with my son. Perhaps I can convince him it’s better to be a superhero than get a superhero.

 Party Ideas That Give Back

  • Books or school supplies: Have a storybook birthday. Ask each child bring two books, one as a gift and one to donate.
  • Build a stuffed animal parties: Have the guests make stuffed animals for donations to emergency rooms or fire departments
  • A green party: Focus the activity around planting a tree. Then guests could pot annuals to take home as their favor.
  • Have a toy recycling party. Ask guests to bring a gently used toy they no longer enjoy. Instead of a manic unwrapping fest focused on the birthday child, guests can swap toys. Everyone leaves with something “new” and less waste is created for landfills.
  • Many nature centers and parks have party rooms available. Inquire about have a park ‘clean up’ party. Ask guests to wear old clothes and bring work gloves.
  • Hold an Africa-themed party and kids can collect donations for African children. You can purchase the gift of a goat or plant trees for a needy community through the development organization Oxfam.
  • For a child who is dying for a pet for his birthday: host a puppy party and ask guests to bring doggie supplies to be donated to the local animal shelter.

Other resources:


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