In March 2011, Megan Yunn was working at her job as director of volunteer programs at a small university near Pittsburgh. On day, she visited one of her group’s youth program sites and sat down with a 12-year-old to go over the girl’s reading homework.
The problem seemed simple: use the word “accustomed” in a sentence. Yunn gave an example to help the young student. “At birthday parties, people are accustomed to eating what?” she asked.
The girl, who was named Beverly, looked perplexed: “She said ‘Miss Megs (Yunn’s nickname), I have never had a birthday party or eaten a slice of birthday cake.”‘
“I felt like someone punched me in the stomach,” Yunn, 32, and a mother of three, tells PEOPLE. “On my way home in the car, I just burst into tears and called my mom. It just never crossed my mind that there were children who had never celebrated their birthdays. I went home and told my husband I need to do something about this.”
In February 2012, Yunn left her college job to start the non-profit Beverly’s Birthdays, named after the young girl who’d touched her life. Its mission was simple: to partner with local agencies to offer free birthday parties, complete with cakes, favors and gifts, for children who were poor, homeless, who lived in shelters, who otherwise might not be able to celebrate. By 2016, her organization, which boasts about 200 volunteers, was holding 120 group birthday parties a year in the greater Pittsburgh area for over 2,000 children and guests, distributing over 1,300 presents.
The organization, working with food banks, also offers birthdays-in-a-bag for families to take home, that contain cake mix, balloons, and candles. It also provides birthday boxes to schools — 436 kits were distributed in 54 schools in greater Pittsburgh region for the 2016-2017 school year — to help teachers honor children’s special days. In addition, Beverly’s Birthdays hosts showers for new mothers who might otherwise come home from the hospital and have no one to honor them and their newborns.
“We have a mission that is universally easy to understand. We all have birthdays, and everyone should know that they are loved, cared for, that they’re noticed and special,” Yunn tells PEOPLE. “Birthdays are joy and hope and smiles. It’s not about lavishness, it’s just about the notion that there are genuinely good people out there and we want to be able to support these families.”
She adds: “I always said I just wanted to dump glitter on the city of Pittsburgh, and I’ve just been blown away by the community support.”
Those who have seen Yunn in action say her personal spark has been central to growing Beverly’s Birthday’s over the past five years.
“Her energy and her passion around this are so clear and so vibrant. She just brings a positive light and energy to everything she does. That draws people to her,” says Kristen Burns, associate director at The Grable Foundation, a regional family foundation, which has supported Beverly’s Birthdays from the beginning.
“It’s really heartwarming to see the smiles on the kids faces when they realize it is something just for them,” Burns tells PEOPLE. “Megs has been really creative in finding ways to reach new families, whether it’s in the classrooms or in temporary housing, homeless shelters, domestic violences shelters. It’s a simple idea but one that has created a real opportunity to add to the range of services in the community that we support on behalf of kids.”
Pat Hargest, the director of development at The Bradley Center, a residential treatment center for kids 6-18, says she’s watched with amazement at how volunteers from Beverly’s Birthdays have come in to their facility and engaged some of their toughest children. Most of the youth at Bradley have a history of severe trauma, PTSD, sexual abuse, malnutrition, with parents who have lost their parental rights.
“Many of them have never had a birthday party,” Hargest tells PEOPLE. “Few of them have ever gotten for what they have asked for, whether it’s a birthday or a holiday. These volunteers come in every other month, treat them well, play games with them, feed them food they are typically not allowed to have, give them presents — it’s just a wonderful night.”
Sheila Haut teaches first grade in the Wilkinsburg School District, a small urban district where 100 percent of students receive free and reduced price lunches, a barometer of poverty. Having a birthday box for her classroom, filled with a wearable crown, pencils, stickers, and bracelets, has made her children feel loved and appreciated when their special day rolls around.
“When it’s a child’s birthday, we announce their name in the morning and they get a certificate, and they go up to the pick out toys.You would think they were going into a box of jewels,” she says. “They are so thrilled to get these little trinkets. It’s so exciting to watch them glow.”
Most teachers, Haut tells PEOPLE, typically pitch in their own money for birthday celebrations, knowing that their children might not get anything to celebrate if they don’t. Now, she says, that money can go to other materials like school supplies.
Beverly’s Birthdays has also provided Valentine’s Day cards for those kids who can’t afford to buy them for their classmates as well as “classroom cheer” in the form of snack foods like Goldfish crackers that birthday children can pass out — a small thing, but also an added expense that most families in her school could not afford.
“They don’t have the money. It’s either pay rent or send them with snacks,” Haut adds. “But now they can say ‘this is from me.’ All the kids think that is so cool.”
Haut, who has taught at the needy school for 14 years, says she is grateful for the help, knowing that someone cares for children who don’t often get the luxury of gifts or surprises.
“When Beverly’s Birthdays came in, they helped us lighten the burden. It means so much,” Haut says. “You would think these children are getting gold, getting into the birthday box. These little things make them feel so special.”
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