“There’s a lot of cool people doing a lot of cool things in our community.”
That’s how Beth Brockling describes the work of local nonprofits and volunteers. She should know. As the founder of Sweet Celebrations, Brockling depends on an “army of volunteers” to provide custom birthday parties and Christmas mornings to remember for children and teens living in area homeless and crisis shelters.
The nonprofit, housed inside Chesterfield Mall, got its start in 2013 when the O’Fallon, Missouri, mom was talking with her “little sister,” Shalei, whom she had met through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri in 2010. The women were reminiscing about the previous year, which had been a pivotal one for Shalei, whose family found itself on the day of her 15th birthday with no place to live; then, through the generosity of Brockling’s friends and family, were able to move into permanent housing again.
As they talked about Shalei’s renewed confidence and happiness, Brockling expected Shalei to attribute it to having a home again. “But she surprised me in sharing that it was her birthday celebration [from the previous year],” Brockling said. That celebration, made possible by Brockling and her friends, empowered Shalei with love and sparked the idea for Sweet Celebrations.
“When I heard her share the dramatic impact that a few strangers directly had over Shalei’s life it gave me an idea. Why not help other children experiencing homelessness celebrate their birthdays?” Brockling asked, adding that her children had the same question. “My son was kind of the one who came up with the inspiration. He asked me if I could do it for one, why couldn’t I do it for many.”
And so she has.
Sweet Celebrations will close out 2019 having provided about 350 birthday celebrations and 800 Christmas mornings. The organization works with shelters across St. Louis City and St. Louis and St. Charles counties, including Crisis Nursery Saint Louis, Youth In Need, The Sparrow’s Nest, Our Lady’s Inn, The Salvation Army, Almost Home, Epworth Children and Family Services, STL Foster Families, Haven of Grace and Bridgeway Behavioral Health. Each personalized party includes themed party décor; a custom birthday cake, ice cream and drinks; a personalized birthday shirt; games and activities; party favors for guests; and wrapped birthday gifts from the child’s wish list including a Build-A-Bear.™
“We provide a personalized birthday party but we keep it economical by making everything for the party,” Brockling explained. Cake donors, many of whom are talented hobbyists, donate the cakes and that “army of volunteers” wraps gifts and makes centerpieces, decorations, goody bags and more. “There are no paid staff. Everything is done by volunteers.”
Those interested in volunteering can click the “Get Involved” link on the nonprofit’s website, sweet-celebrations.org, and sign up for “Celebration Updates” at the top of its home page.
Volunteer opportunities include attending birthday workshops, which Brockling describes as a fun way for both individuals and groups to get involved, and actually attending a child’s celebration.
“I think the fear is that attending the party at the shelter will be sad, but it’s not. The kids are excited and they’re having fun and you get to just see the stress melt off of their faces,” Brockling said. “And it’s not just the kids. The parents, too, get some relief from stress when they know that their child is going to be able to be celebrated and have a birthday party.”
But the parties themselves are more than just fun, Brockling pointed to research that indicates the developmental importance of celebrating birthdays and the role they play in helping children move from one age and stage to the next.
“We’re seeing a lot of really great things from it,” Brockling said.
Those great things inspired Brockling to add Christmas into the mix. Through Sweet Celebrations’ Dear Santa program, volunteers can “adopt” children, each of whom gets five gifts and a personalized stocking. Most of those preparations can be complete by mid-December but not all.
“There will be children who move into the shelters during Christmas week and some – we estimate nearly 50 – will move into shelters on Christmas Eve,” Brockling said. “But we make sure we still get the child’s name and what the child likes, and then we pick out gifts for those children [and teens – the program goes up to age 18] and wrap and deliver them in time for Christmas morning.
“Every year, I’m just so blown away by how generous and how sweet our community is.”
Like Brockling, Natalie Mackay was just a mom who saw a need that resulted in a nonprofit that today is working to fulfill children’s and parents’ dreams.
Mackay’s son, Zachary, suffers from a rare genetic central nervous system disease [Pelizaeus Merzbacher Disease] that requires him to use a wheelchair or assistive walking device. When Mackay took Zachary to the park as a toddler she realized that most playgrounds were not designed with her child in mind. Even more frustrating was the fact that those playgrounds prevented him from interacting with other children.
After visiting an accessible playground while traveling to the east coast, the idea for Zachary’s Playground at Hawk Ridge Park was born. That playground was a collective effort of the city of Lake Saint Louis and the St. Charles Developmental Disabilities Resource Board. It also was the catalyst for Unlimited Play, a 501[c] nonprofit that helps to plan, design and build fully accessible playgrounds that allow all children – regardless of their abilities – to play together.
“We typically work with cities that might have budgets for playgrounds but not inclusive playgrounds. As a nonprofit, we help with fundraising to accomplish that goal. With that we approach service clubs, local businesses, individuals – it’s always a grassroots effort to raise the additional funds needed to build a truly inclusive playground,” Mackay explained. “We form local teams of volunteers that represent Unlimited Play and can work with a community in fundraising.”
Mackay stressed that just as important as monetary donations are in-kind gifts – “concrete work that’s donated, fencing that’s donated, people willing to do the labor needed to lay the concrete, things like that.”
“There’s always new playgrounds going in, so there’s always opportunities for the community to get involved,” Mackay said. “We always have a community build when we are putting in a new playground. That allows community members to come out for a day and work alongside our professionals in assembling some aspects of the playground.
“We also need volunteers to serve on our local committees, finding funds for projects and connecting within the area. We’re trying really hard to launch a program that would allow schools to come out and do field trips, so we’re looking for people who would want to sit on a committee for that. We have a 5K Run every year and a gala and we’re always looking for volunteers for those events.”
Individuals and groups that are interested in volunteering with Unlimited Play can reach out through the Contact Us link on the nonprofit’s website, unlimitedplay.org.
“We know that our playgrounds teach kids to appreciate each other’s differences,” Mackay said. “They provide an opportunity for kids to break down barriers and learn from each other and build friendships. Those are the pieces that are most important to me, the social inclusion part of these playgrounds.
“We build it to be the coolest playground and then build the inclusion in so that those of us who need it know it’s there, right? And then everyone else just thinks it’s the coolest playground around to go to.”
Building the “coolest playgrounds around” is never easy but, in sharing the story of a girl named Gracie and her first visit to Zachary’s Playground, Mackay sums up why the work is so important.
“We had brought lunch for the kids,” she explained, “and halfway through the time, Gracie wheeled over and said, ‘Hey Natalie, can I just not eat lunch today. I’ve never played on a playground.’
“It’s those moments that make everything worth it!”