This year’s invitation reads: Ella’s 14th Birthday Party! Bonfire — Music — Food — Fun! In lieu of presents, Ella requests that you please bring an item of warm winter clothing to donate to local children in need.
And every year since 2003 the invitation has had a similar message. One year it was Toys For Tots and Ella was able to donate a veritable pirate’s booty of toys for the holiday season toy drive. We always get mixed responses to these birthday requests. Her friends seem to be particularly distressed and confused. Why do you want hats and gloves for your birthday? Can’t your parents just buy you a new scarf? Does your religion say that you can’t get presents? And their parents usually either forgo the donation all together and get her a pricey gift despite our request, or go the extra mile by purchasing a “little something for Ella” along with the donation. I often feel that the message is falling on deaf ears. The message our family is trying to send is that the presence of friends IS the birthday present, and passing joy on to children who are not as fortunate as Ella (or her friends) is the best present any of us could give to a child. I’m not sure that her party guests necessarily leave for the evening with a better appreciation of how blessed they all are, but what I have come to realize is that I can only ensure what message I am sending to my own daughter.
Each year, while celebrating her birthday, reflecting on another year of growth, and dreaming about the upcoming year, she has also been given the opportunity to think about her community and contribute to the world around her in a significant way. On a day that is universally accepted as a day of celebration for the individual, she chooses to consider others. Since we began this tradition, Ella has found numerous ways to volunteer her time throughout the year. Later this year, she hopes to become a volunteer peer counselor in order to help younger girls learn about reproductive health and empower teens to reject unrealistic images of women in the media. Giving my child a voice, and expecting to hear her use it, has allowed Ella to blossom into an outspoken, confident, and compassionate person who will always believe that she has the power to change the world…even if it is only one birthday party at a time for now.