Daniele Seiss Washington Post Staff Writer
April 20, 2003; Page T1
Burnt-orange basketballs and little honey-brown bears nestle among shrink-wrapped board games, mini race cars and other new toys, some neatly shelved, some spilling out around a box filled with rolls of colorful wrapping paper. They take up a good one-third of a windowless basement room adjacent to the airy home office of TRT Inc., a continuing legal education provider in Leesburg. The office doubles as headquarters -- and storage area -- for Birthday Blessing Inc., a nonprofit founded a year ago to give birthday presents to children who otherwise would go without.
Blessing's founder, Sharon Brown, has children ages 4, 7 and 10 and knows how important birthdays are to kids. Volunteering for a church program in the District 10 years ago, she learned about a teenager who was having a birthday that would go uncelebrated because his single mother could not afford gifts.
"So I bought a gift for him, and the program's director delivered it," Brown said. "He and the other kids were all excited ,and they wanted him to open it, but he said, no, he would wait until he was home, so he could open it with his mom. It was the first birthday present he'd received in his 16 years. I realized then there was a great need." Afterward, she tried to find homeless shelters interested in connecting her with children who might benefit from birthday presents. "But it was impossible to organize," she said. "The children staying in the shelters were too transient."
The idea slept in Brown's mind as her life changed, with full-time motherhood supplanting her career as a design consultant.
Then in July 2001, she heard about Prison Fellowship, an organization that provides practical assistance to prisoners' families. It had a large database of prisoners' children, about 12,000 in Virginia, in which she saw her chance. But again she hit organizational snags, including shipping costs. Finally, when she contacted Loudoun's social services agency and the Loudoun Abused Women's Shelter, things started to come together. By then, she was a newly single mother herself and turned to her own mother, TRT's owner, Nett Brown, for help. Now Brown and several volunteers take presents, and joy, to children in three counties on their birthdays. Each month, they receive the names of children ages 3 to 16 from social services agencies and other groups in Loudoun and Fairfax counties and Alexandria.
"A lot of the children are waiting for adoption, being moved into and out of foster care or group housing," Hough said. "They feel left out and forgotten. It's my hope that by providing a gift for their special day, it will help build their self-esteem and make them feel just a little more loved and wanted."
Brown said the giving is intentionally anonymous.
"It's not about me or the volunteers," she said. "We pass the gifts along to be given to the children by people who know them better. . . . But the children still sometimes write thank-you notes, and social workers pass along their reactions." One of Birthday Blessing's biggest donations has come from the Loudoun County Girl Scouts.
In March, Girl Scouting marked its 91st birthday and, as part of their celebration, Loudoun scouts spent the month collecting gifts for Birthday Blessing. Anna Pallotta, 13, a Cadette with Troop 751 in Leesburg, held a party March 16 at Purcellville Skating Rink to collect gifts. With the help of her mother, troop leader Sola Pallotta, and fellow Cadettes—especially Ashley Fortanbary, Sarah Nowalk and Michelle Rudman—Anna put on a birthday-style spread for 150 girls, who brought 500 new gifts for Birthday Blessing.
That brought the Scouts' total for the month to 1,000, such a successful effort that they plan to make the party and collection an annual event.
Brown said the nonprofit is growing rapidly on that kind of community support, with an eight-member board that includes Karen Velez, resource development specialist for the Loudoun County Department of Social Services. "Our social services guru," Brown calls her.
"Sharon is dynamite," said Velez, who spearheads the Community Holiday Coalition to collect food and gifts for struggling families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. "She spends night and day on this and has her whole family involved. Fairfax even gave her an award of appreciation."
Birthday Blessing's board plans to hold two annual fundraisers, the first June 22 at Tarara Winery. Called Birthday Blessing Summerfest, it will feature children's activities and music, crafts and wine tasting for adults. Brown said the second probably will be a more formal event, maybe black tie, in the fall.
Birthday Blessing has 19 local corporate sponsors in addition to the Holiday Coalition and Loudoun County Girl Scouts, and Brown, who hopes to take the organization nationwide, said many local companies have helped. Fort Knox Self-Storage in Leesburg has donated more storage space, and Dulles Town Center has donated a kiosk at which Birthday Blessing can advertise for volunteers and donations.
Brown's own River Creek Community in Leesburg held a fundraising luncheon this month, raising about $1,200 in books and $1,800 in toys for the nonprofit. "Even my kids contribute by helping me choose gifts," Brown said.