Robert Just remembers the day a group of police officers came to the boarding school where he was living – a home for troubled youth. He was 8 years old. The police put on a show to entertain the children and make them laugh.
It’s years later, but Just never forgot those officers in Pleasantville, NY who cared enough to sacrifice their time and energy to spread some holiday cheer to a group of children. He’s grateful and knows the impact that one single event had on his life. Now, he wants to share what those officers did for him with other children, bringing adults into schools to celebrate the value of each child.
That’s the impetus behind the “Birth-Day Project,” a way for concerned adults to have an impact on their local schools. It’s a simple idea: Adults from the community go into a school on May 1st (or as close as possible) and celebrate each child’s birthday, all on the same day, dishing out ice cream sundaes and interacting with the children.
Dawn Verhille, Principal of Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists, described the festivities at her New York school:
The event took place on May 1st. In preparation for the day, there were signs posted throughout the building reminding students that everyone is special in their own unique way. On the day of the event, the café was decorated with birthday balloons, and the tables were set up with a spread of ice cream sundaes. As the students entered the building, they were greeted with sounds of “happy birthday!” The energy became infectious and it did not take long for students, ranging from grades 6‐12 to join into the excitement.
When I entered the café, to my surprise, there were 15 men welcoming my students to lunch, celebrating them as they entered and singing “Happy Birthday” to them as they ate. To top it off, they offered students toppings to personalize their ice cream. They also sat down to talk and make connections with the students during this time.
The Birth-Day events began in Grants Pass, in Josephine County, Oregon, in 2012. Just, a filmmaker, writer and talk show host, started a number of community service organizations that for many years have worked within the county, under the umbrella “Concerned Families.” The group’s main project now reaches about 10,000 children a year with May 1st ice cream events in schools across the entire county. “Community mothers” serve the elementary schools, “community fathers” serve the high schools, and middle schools are covered by either or both.
“Concerned Fathers Against Crime” (CFAC) is part of Concerned Families; the group has served alongside police and sheriff agencies in Southern Oregon for over 25 years. “Concerned Mothers Alliance for Children” was formed in 2004 and seeks to protect children from negative cultural influences, while “Concerned Youth” began a couple years later. On the first Saturday of the month, especially during the summer, volunteer youth, under the watch of adult volunteers, fan out across the downtown area to pick up litter and report graffiti to law enforcement. With a motto of “Family in Community,” these groups have now taken up Birth-Day as their primary focus.
In addition to serving the schools, Birth-Day is also celebrated within the Grants Pass juvenile justice system. Eric Henderson, a CFAC board member, took the event into a local youth correctional facility. Henderson had been involved for years in youth prison ministry, but even he was surprised at the effect Birth-Day had on building relationships with the inmates and staff. Now Birth-Day is an annual event at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility.
On May 1, 2019, a story that had begun in rural America unfolded in our nation’s largest city. A group of men from the New Canaan Society (NCS) launched the first New York City Birth-Day in the South Bronx. It’s an area located, Just says, in the poorest congressional district in the whole country. Just had given a speech at NCS about Birth-Day, and a Young Life area director heard the message and was inspired to join the project. Within weeks, Young Life Manhattan had adopted the Birth-Day Project. They’re already planning to hold Birth-Day celebrations in at least 2 more schools this year.
The New York celebration had an impact beyond the students, as the ice cream for the event came from a business called “Alphabet Scoop,” part of a ministry to homeless and impoverished in the city. Alphabet Scoop makes its own ice cream and gives young people from troubled backgrounds an opportunity to work and earn income. The group is excited to be part of celebrating Birth-Day at other schools around the city.
Just hopes the event will go national, honoring every child as a unique, valuable individual. A YouTube video about Birth-Day says all children have a common need: “to know they are loved and that their life has value.” The Birth-Day website has a place to sign in to learn more about putting on an event at a local school.
Just believes it’s important that the adults are from the community – not teachers, staff or parents. He says, “The very fact the Birth-Day adults are strangers to the students is a key part of the impact of Birth-Day.”
He adds: “We’ve learned over the years that many kids don’t celebrate much on their birthdays, or get invited to parties, and of course, many don’t have their birthdays during the school year. In the nicest way, Birth-Day allows for everyone’s unique life to be celebrated by everyone else. We even celebrate the teachers, staff and administration. After all, they are unique too!”
The personal impact of Birth-Day can be beautiful, but also heart-breaking, says Just. He tells about a student and a volunteer who were both affected by a Birth-Day event: “The first year we served at one of our high schools a senior girl told one of our board members, Allyn Lawrence, that it was “the best day of my life.” He was completely shocked that an ice cream sundae served by some caring men could have so much impact. Relaying the experience brought Lawrence to tears.” Just adds, “We have many stories of kids admitting they’ve never had a birthday party before.”
As a child, Robert Just was influenced by adults in the community reaching out to serve children and teens in need. Now, he and others are passing on that blessing to thousands more – from Grants Pass, Oregon all the way to New York City.