Allison’s Story. She is 37.
It was five or six years back, around 2008, when an ice storm hit Fort Wayne. That was the first time it occurred to me that some people have no place to go when extreme weather hits. No place to go at any time, really. I kept hearing reports on the news about the lack of shelter around town, wondering “what were people that were homeless doing?” This was the first time I really considered the topic of homelessness.
I’ve always worked in social services, but I went back to school later in life, with an 11-year-old son at home. I graduated at the time when the bottom fell out of the economy, making it hard to find a job, and, for the first time in my adult life, we were living paycheck to paycheck. It was the right time for me to begin giving back to the community, because I realized that could be my family living out on the street. All it would take is one unfortunate circumstance. Having always known that I wanted to start my own non-profit someday, that realization kind of gave me the push in the direction of what my path was going to be.
I started Birthday Blessings in 2009 as a way to reach out to the children of the homeless community around Fort Wayne, hoping eventually to expand to outlying areas of Northeast Indiana. The main focus that we deal with right now is shelter parties, going to different shelters every month and celebrating for any child having a birthday that month. We serve a meal, have cake and ice cream, hand out goody bags, and give a present to kids with birthdays. We try to do some craft activities and things like that. I really see these parties making a difference in the attitudes of the shelters.
With some of the shelters being long-term facilities, we see some of the same people every month, sometimes for a year at a time. Understand that these shelters are cramped, often with multiple families living in close quarters. Of course my main focus is helping the kids, but I think the thing that surprised me the most was the camaraderie that started to come out in something like a family-style dinner among the adult residents. It is such a unique thing, because you see women taking care of other peoples kids and caring about each other.
Starting Birthday Blessings has made such a difference in my life. It has definitely humbled me a lot, having met some of the most compassionate people in these shelters, seeing them take care of each other. Giving kids a birthday party when they have never had one before, they are so grateful for something that I take for granted each year.
One of the reasons I started Birthday Blessings was because I wanted my son to be a charitable person and have that engrained in his values and his morals. I have my son help me out at the shelters to develop these characteristics. I think the thing that really hit home with him was that one time he saw someone who went to his school. He didn’t say anything until after the party, and then he said, “That boy goes to my school.” It just really affected him, changing his perception of who a homeless person can be. He even spoke about Birthday Blessings at his school, and his class decided to donate some money for the shelter parties.
We try to get organizations and groups to sponsor and help out with parties, partly for financial reasons, but mainly so they, too, can have the same life-changing experiences as me and my son. Unfortunately, I think most people have a perception of homelessness that is absolutely wrong. Many see homeless people as scary, dirty, any of those stereotypes that we see, especially in movies and other media. When actually, often times they are families that have just gotten down on their luck, and it could easily have been my family.
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Lutheran Social Services and the Office of the Mayor in Fort Wayne, Indiana.