How a Birthday Cake Changed Our Identity
One morning, I watched a news story about an organization in New England that made a “birthday in a box” for homeless children. I thought, “What a nice idea!” and wondered how hard it was to get that going. We reached out to the organization, but they only served their local community, far from our school in Gainesville, Florida. I mentioned the story to my staff, and we let the idea percolate for a few days. At that time, we were in the process of rethinking our Jewish mission. With that idea in mind, we recognized the birthday box as a beautiful example of the mitzvah of gemilut chasadim.
Lesson one: Think outside the box.
We reached out to a local homeless shelter, which referred us to a family shelter, and they loved the idea. Together, we agreed that our nursery and preschool classes would take turns baking a birthday cake and making cards to give to a child at the shelter each month. We also asked our families to donate their leftover birthday party supplies—those two goodie bags that never got picked up, the package of napkins that were too much trouble to return. Parents were happy to help; several felt we were doing them a favor “taking this stuff off their hands.” We set up three big Tupperware bins in the office, bought cake mix, and were ready to go.
Lesson two: Keep a wide lens. Be willing to morph your idea.
And then, no birthdays. It turned out the local shelter wasn’t that big because, thankfully, there are not many homeless families in our area. Although we were thrilled at the lack of homeless children, we were now eager to find a new partner agency. We reached out to the local Ronald McDonald House Charities and told them our idea. We would extend the program to the children of the families staying at the house. And we were off.
Next, I read that parents were forcing children to potty train early, because they couldn’t afford diapers and wipes. I reached out to several other schools to partner this idea, and no one was interested. We discussed it as a staff and reached out to several organizations working with moms with new babies, but most never returned our calls.
Finally, our local mental health provider, which had a residential program for new moms who kept their babies with them while in treatment, jumped at the idea. What started several years ago as a diaper, formula and baby wipes donation drive has morphed into maternity clothes, outgrown toys, books and baby furniture. Last year alone, our school donated more than $4,000 in goods to this program. Again, our parents love it. It provided a wonderful opportunity to talk to their little ones about some children who don’t have a lot of toys and the importance of sharing our things.
Just when we were happy to be helping our larger community, bigger things started to happen we never envisioned. People in the community, both Jewish and not Jewish, started to hear about our school. People who had never heard of our 40-year-old school suddenly said, “You’re the place doing the birthday cakes.” In some cases, this led to more school tours. It also led to invitations to sit on several of these organizations boards, which introduced our school to even more local organizations and businesses. We’ve received community civic awards with an even broader audience.
Lesson three: Doing good things can have unexpected benefits.
This flurry of new activity created an identity change within our school. Parents loved the easily comprehensible message to their young children of helping others, tikkun olam. Our two-year-olds understood that the birthday cakes they make and items they donate go to children who are sick or sad. Parents were thrilled when their children come home articulating they made a birthday cake for a boy or girl who was sick. This bigger-picture learning resonated with our families. Our parents even initiated plans to do more involved projects, and they became more active in social action issues.
Lesson four: People do have time to help if they feel passionate about the cause.
After that, we were asked to write a series of articles on family philanthropy for a local, high-end magazine. These pieces raised our exposure to a broader segment of the population. Families who were not engaged in the Jewish community started to enroll; new donors were interested in supporting us.
The next evolution came through our staff. The more we did, the more the staff wanted to do—even on their own time. We set up a committee just to look at the organizations in our area that we might be able to help. It is the most popular of all our school committees. Each month, they meet to choose an organization. Sometimes our help is purely financial, like when the Jewish day schools in Houston had hurricane damage, but most of the time we focus on local charities. We’ve helped more than a dozen organizations every year since.
Next year, our teachers are volunteering to go in pairs at night to teach a family activity. Many of them are nervous to speak in front of adults, so this was a perfect vehicle to gain public speaking experience while helping others. When you make playdough every day, it’s not so scary to teach others how to do it, and these families, perhaps at a domestic violence shelter, welcome a fun, relaxed way to engage with their children. Now, our interviewing process for new staff includes a question about volunteering. It has become such a large part of our identity that we now seek out others who have the same passion.
Lesson FIVE: People from unlikely places notice when you are doing good things.
Several years later, we are known in our community as a place to send your child if you have a passion for civic leadership and social action. Our story has become entwined with the stories that our partner agencies tell about their work in the community. Our relationships with these organizations have not only allowed us to help many of the underserved in our community but also helped us to identify what our school’s most important Jewish values are. All from a birthday cake.