We are very excited to bring you Smarty Mom, Amy Cervantes. We have wanted to feature Amy for some time and the moment has arrived. All of us at CSP have admired Amy and her work and we are so happy to introduce you to the mom behind Birthday Blessings. Janet Cooper Haas brings you her introduction:
Amy and her husband John started Birthday Blessings in 2005 as a family service project because they wanted to teach their children lessons in giving. They came up with this unique idea of throwing a birthday party for the children living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope. When 60 people showed up to the party, they knew they needed help, so they recruited friends and family for the next party. Amy started calling on entertainment companies and food and beverage providers to provide the food and fun.
Now, five years later, their family service project mushroomed into a 501(c)3 nonprofit, serving 15 homeless agencies and facilities and over 30 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools every month! To date, Birthday Blessings has celebrated over 1,100 birthdays! In addition to the Shelter Party and Student Birthdays Programs, Amy developed the Blessing Baskets Program in 2009, a critical-needs program that serves babies born into homelessness.
Amy leads an all-volunteer staff of 30 people. Grant writing, securing partners and sponsors, public speaking, organizing volunteers, stocking the shelves of our mini toy store … she does it all! She also heads up the Birthday Blessings Affiliate Network, and hopes to have Birthday Blessings chapters across the nation in the future. Since Reader’s Digest and Woman’s World Magazine profiled Amy and Birthday Blessings at the beginning of the year, she has received over 300 out-of-state inquiries. Currently, there are pilot affiliates getting under way in northeast Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia.
In addition to serving as Birthday Blessings’ volunteer executive director, Amy is a stay-at-home mom of three young and busy boys. She is an elder at her church and teaches there, as well, in addition to the usual mommy jobs, like carpooling, attending soccer games, laundry and making dinner. Honestly, I don’t know when this lady sleeps! I do know she drinks a ton of coffee.
Children: Alex, 8; Eli, 5; Adam, 3
Home: Mint Hill
Tell us about Birthday Blessings
Birthday Blessings is an all-volunteer 501c3 non-profit organization serving homeless children across the greater Charlotte region. Originally founded in 2005 as our family service project, we later incorporated as a non-profit and began expanding our services in March of 2008. Since then, we have grown to develop and operate three programs that focus on the emotional needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness, while also helping support their basic needs.
The programs of Birthday Blessings bring positive emotional experiences to homeless children and their families by lifting spirits, boosting confidence, broadening horizons, and supporting basic needs.
Our three core programs serve thousands of homeless children and families across a four-county region each year:
* Shelter Parties – Birthday celebrations held onsite at homeless shelters and housing facilities
* Student Birthdays – An anonymous program serving transient homeless children through school
* Blessing Baskets – Care essentials, clothing, and gifts to celebrate and support the arrival of homeless babies
To date, Birthday Blessings has hosted over 730 parties to celebrate more than 1,200 birthdays for homeless children. Launched in 2009, our Blessing Baskets program has already provided a healthy and positive start to life for over 150 babies born into homelessness. www.BirthdayBlessings.org
What inspired you to launch not just this venture but this journey?
One evening in early summer 2005, John and I were talking about the wonderful—though challenging—journey ahead of raising a growing family. Our son Alex had recently turned three, and baby Eli was just two months old. We were in the midst of sleepless nights with a newborn and busy days with a toddler, and we could easily envision how much busier life was going to get as the boys grew!
But we wondered what we could do as parents to make sure our family wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the hectic pace of life—going here, going there; doing this, doing that—and lose sight of what it means to look outside of yourself and be mindful of the needs of others. Our family was blessed, and we knew we wanted to raise our boys with an understanding of the importance of giving back to those in need; to instill in them the joy of giving to others.
We started brainstorming ways for our family to do volunteer service in the community. But Alex was so young, and that limited our options. What could we do as a family that would also be relevant and meaningful to a preschooler? Then a spark went off—Alex has just celebrated his third birthday. We knew what a big deal it was to him, to us, and to all of his little friends. It was a celebration for and about Alex. It was his day. He was in the spotlight and he was happy, proud, and excited all day long. There was so much joy and love surrounding him.
We started thinking about needy kids on their birthdays and we questioned: what about homeless children? Do they get to celebrate their birthdays? Do they feel that same sense of joy, pride, and love on “their” day? Life is already so hard for them.
The idea of Birthday Blessings was born that night. Helping needy kids celebrate their birthdays was something our own young boys could help with and relate to—it was a way to positively impact the lives of others and a hands-on way to instill a love of giving in our own children. The next day, I called the Salvation Army Center of Hope—the largest women & children’s shelter in the area—to find out if the kids there had a way to celebrate their birthdays. The answer was no, and so we quickly went to work preparing for a birthday party that our family would host for all of the kids at the shelter every month, with a special spotlight on the birthday guests of honor.
At the first party we had roughly 40 children attend. The second month more than 50 came. The third month, even more smiling faces came running into the room. We quickly realized what we had stumbled upon—most of these children had never celebrated their own birthdays; many had never even attended a birthday party. There was so much joy in the room each month, and such confidence among the birthday children. These homeless kids were experiencing a little piece of childhood that had never been theirs, and the impact was huge. We were hooked.
Five years and another son later, Birthday Blessings continues its mission of bringing joy and support to homeless children, serving thousands across our community each year. It is a daily part of our family life. The boys—Alex, now 8; Eli, now 5; and Adam 3—are actively involved. Whether it’s volunteering at the Birthday Blessings facility, shopping for gifts, or helping at a party, all Cervantes hands are on deck, alongside a wonderful group of volunteers who help make it all possible.
What can we do as a Smarty community to help?
Birthday Blessings is an all-volunteer organization. It takes a lot of helping hands and hearts to do what we do. In 2009, our programs and services impacted the lives of thousands of homeless children as a result of nearly 8,000 hours in volunteer service!
Smarty families can get involved by volunteering or by contributing donations. We have many family-friendly support projects and volunteer opportunities listed on the Volunteer page of our website. We also welcome weekday volunteers at our facility, and we’ll gladly give tours to those who have collected donations for Birthday Blessings so that they can “see” the impact of their generosity.
And, please help us spread the word! Half the battle of reaching new volunteers and supporters is simply letting people know we’re here. We’d love for CSP members to join our e-News community, become a Facebook Fan, follow us on Twitter… and invite your friends, neighbors, colleagues, to do the same. Is your child’s preschool or grade school looking for service projects? Please tell them about Birthday Blessings!
How can we involve our children and make this a family activity?
John and I started this organization with a dual goal: to impact our community and to get our children involved. With that founding principle in mind, we have created support projects that are geared toward children of all ages, from making candy necklaces and filling goodie bags to volunteering at our facility or at a shelter party. What we’ve learned is that even the simplest project can make a huge impact on your children and families.
Our boys love to go shopping for “the BB kids” as they say. It is a powerful, giving, and empowering experience for them to go into a toy store and choose items for someone else, not themselves. To know that they are picking out gifts that will help another child feel happy—a child who doesn’t even have a home to live in and wouldn’t have a birthday party if we didn’t help. That concept really resonates, and it’s amazing to see just how excited and thoughtful they become as they shop. OR, shopping at a dollar store for party favors and treats and then bringing them home to fill bags is also a great family service experience. The time you spend together around the table filling little bags is a fun way to have meaningful conversation with your children about helping others in need. The idea of a child not having a birthday party is something that really clicks for them. Just talking about the emotions can help give them that “ah-ha” moment…. How do you feel on your birthday? What if you didn’t get to celebrate your birthday, if no one recognized your birthday—how would that make you feel?
What is the greatest need for Birthday Blessings?
Our program needs fluctuate based on the donations we receive and the numbers we are serving. Right now, we are in need of the following items for our Blessing Baskets program: Bottles, baby lotion, hooded towels, wash cloths, boxes of rice cereal, and laundry baskets. For our party programs, we are always in need of gifts and party favors for ‘tweens & teens. Complete wish lists can be found on our web site: www.BirthdayBlessings.org. Of course, we are always in need of financial contributions.
Aside from our program needs, we need of steady volunteers who can assist at our facility during the week, and in the community as we provide our programs and services to homeless children and families at shelters and housing facilities. We currently have positions available for weekday volunteers, as well as volunteer program/party coordinators.
How has this changed your family?
Birthday Blessings has impacted our family far more than we ever could have imagined. Our experiences getting to know homeless children and families and helping provide for their needs continues to be a privilege. We’ve experienced first-hand the joys of impacting another person’s life through the smallest act of kindness—small to us, but enormous to someone else. The boys love to help and it has become second nature to them to want to help other people in virtually any capacity. When they get money for their birthdays or holidays, they choose to spend some of it for other kids and some on themselves.
One day recently while the boys were volunteering at the Birthday Blessings facility, I overheard my five year old explaining to my three year old—as they were sorting and labeling donations with stickers—that these gifts were “to help other kids feel happy because they don’t have a real house like us to live in and sometimes they feel sad in the big building where they sleep, and that’s what we do at Birthday Blessings, we help them feel happy because we love them.” The boys had no idea I was standing behind them across the room, so it was a very heartfelt moment for me as a parent to overhear my rising kindergartener in this discussion with his little brother.
Our family has definitely been changed as a result of our Birthday Blessings journey. We’ve realized that there are so many things we take for granted in our everyday lives; and that it can be easy to confuse needs and wants. Most of all, this journey continues to reshape how we live our own lives. Our family priorities have shifted from being internal to external, and that continues to be a transforming experience for all of us.
What tips do you have for other mompreneurs both in the profit and nonprofit out there trying to get started?
For all of the wonderful upsides, there are definitely challenges and hurdles to overcome along the way. This endeavor has required a lot of sacrifice for us as a family, both financially and time-wise, but the outcomes far outweigh those sacrifices. Probably the hardest part is juggling family life with three young boys, church, school, and community activities, alongside running a non-profit in my “spare time.” It’s been tough to realize that I simply can’t do it all, and do it all perfectly. I’ve had to let go of things and admit that I just can’t make everything work exactly as I might want or expect it to; and ultimately that’s okay. But choices have to be made and priorities have to be shifted, and we just go into that mindset believing and standing by our choices. That realization wasn’t easy to arrive at and I wish we had gone into this journey knowing it and being okay with it from the start… but as we all know, hindsight is always 20/20 and perspective only comes through experience.
We’re very blessed to have supportive family members who help. One afternoon each week, either my mother or my mother-in-law watches the kids so that I can have a few hours of focused time for meetings and work at the office/facility. But most days, my work is getting done in a start-stop-start again fashion while tending to the kids, and goes late into the evenings. It’s definitely not easy to keep everything going and sometimes the stress is really hard to deal with, but I know that the return is great and that the needs out there are greater than me—which helps me keep it all in perspective. And my faith plays the biggest role in maintaining the load, as I rely daily on God’s strength, wisdom, and guidance in all that I do.
I certainly don’t have a magical “tip” for anyone else… I think ALL moms are working hard to achieve balance among work, family, community. If only the Staples “easy button” was real! 🙂
What is your favorite family time activity?
We love to take “field trips” to visit museums, parks, and other interesting and fun places in and around Charlotte. We love the Schiele Museum in Gastonia!
Favorite mommy-time activity?
Building forts with the boys, reading stories, and playing board games.
Favorite lunch spot sans kids?
Hmm… lunch without the kids? What’s that like? Ha! (But When I do get that relatively rare opportunity, I love the Chinese Grilled Chicken Salad at Cheese Cake Factory!)
Favorite place to take the whole fam to dinner?
We love Zapata’s Mexican in Ballantyne!
Best book you’ve read lately?
Same Kind of Different As Me, by Denver Moore. What a powerful message.
Hard to say, there are so many favorites. Alex and I recently went on a mother-son “date night” and saw the new Karate Kid movie— we both loved it, and was definitely nostalgic for me! Right now John and I are into the new season of “Mad Men” on television, one of our favorite TV series.
Funniest thing your kids have ever said to you?
A few months ago Eli (who had just turned five) came into the kitchen with his coveted coin jar and very matter-of-factly informed John and I, “If we just go to Walmart, we can live better and save money, and I can put more coins in my jar.” It was truly hilarious! Out of the mouths of babes…
Best birthday party you’ve attended/hosted?
I’m a big fan of old-fashioned parties at the park. Cupcakes, ice cream and playtime; add in balloons and some face painting and the fun abounds!
Favorite date-night spot?
A couple of favorites include Arooji restaurant and wine bar, and restaurant Blue uptown. We also love the NoDa area and eating at Boudreaux’s.
Best summer tip to hang with your kids?
Planning our local “field trips” to places in and around Charlotte.
Minivan or SUV and why?
Actually, I’m a wagon girl… but with three young boys we opted for a “crossover” type and got a Ford Freestyle, which we love. It’s spacious inside but it’s not so tall/big that I feel like I’m driving a tanker! 🙂
Favorite phone app?
The camera feature (is that even considered an app??). Honestly, I just use my phone for calling, texting, and voicemails. Lame, I know!
Favorite CSP article so far?
I love the Smarty Scoop… with three young boys it’s great to know I can quickly and easily put my fingers on what’s happening around town and kid-friendly places to go. It’s a regular, must-visit link for me!
Best kept secret in Charlotte?
Well, I’d say the best kept secret near Charlotte is Dan Nicholas State Park in Salisbury. We LOVE that park! Where else can you go with the kids to see black bears and other zoo animals, ride a train and carousel, play in the spray ground, go gem mining, visit a petting barn, play putt-putt, have a picnic, and paddleboat across a beautiful lake… all for just a few dollars?!
I could not live without my…
My husband’s love, friendship, and support. Oh, and lots of coffee, of course… 🙂