Volume 74, Number 44 | March 09 - 15, 2005


Children for Children
206 E. 63rd Street
New York, NY 10021
(212) 759-1462

Jumping out of birthday party whirlwind

Teaching kids to give back

By Aileen Torres

“Children for Children” began with a very simple idea. It was sparked by an ordinary ritual – children’s birthday parties. Silda Wall found herself busy organizing birthday parties for her three young daughters, the eldest of whom was then six-years-old. But after throwing several of them, she began to become uneasy. Not that she didn’t believe it was important to celebrate her children’s birthdays, she did, of course. But she couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that they were too extravagant and encouraged too much self-centeredness.

And that’s what led to Children for Children, founded in 1996.

“The birthday parties were kind of a flash point. I wanted to get young children involved in the larger community in the city,” said Wall, who happens to be married to state attorney general Eliot Spitzer.

Wall knew from her own experience that it was not easy to find ways for children to give back. Likewise, how to teach them about other parts of the city, different from the privileged world they knew.

So Wall came up with the revolutionary idea of revamping birthday parties to foster community service.

“Many children in the city spend a lot of time going to birthday parties because the [unspoken] policy is to invite everyone from [the child’s] class, so no one is left out,” said Wall. But that translates into children going to one elaborate celebration after the other where the focus is on “me.”

So the first CFC event she organized was the “Celebrations Program.” It encouraged families to consciously reduce the cost of a birthday party through various techniques: baking a cake at home with their kids instead of buying one and then donating the money to CFC.

That money goes to New York City schools. It takes the form of resource grants given to schools in need.

Another idea is to have children donate any birthday money they might receive from relatives and/or ask guests to make donations in the amount of the birthday child’s age. Likewise, guests could bring books to donate. Another tact is having kids make birthday cards for less fortunate kids. Whatever the option chosen, the goal is to involve kids in the process and to value and enjoy being socially responsible.

But the birthday parties were just the beginning. CFC now sends children out into the community through the auspices of various philanthropic programs. One group, the Children’s Action Board, sends 6-to 13-year-olds out to neighborhoods to plant flowers and paint attractive murals. CFC also administers book programs to collect and donate new and used books to schools and preschools in need. CFC has placed around 500,000 books thus far.

The organization also runs special events, such as the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, honoring King’s life-long commitment to community. On April 16, CFC will co-sponsor National Youth Service Day by organizing a large group of young volunteers to perform service work. Children are also encouraged to take the initiative and “Do Your Own Thing,” a program that invites kids, families and schools to raise money for CFC grants through bake sales.

Beyond quantifiable measurements, CFC’s impact on the community can best be seen in the reaction of children who become involved. CFC has them write evaluations at the end of each event, and Wall is pleasantly struck by what some of the kids write. “Sometimes, the kids will say, ‘I didn’t really want to come. I wanted to sleep in this Saturday morning. But I came, and I didn’t want to leave.’ They really connect with how meaningful it is.”

Probably the most striking indication the organization is well on its way to fulfilling its mission came from Wall’s own children.

A few years ago, her eldest came to her with a concern about a friend who had a relative in need of brain surgery. Not having the operation would have been fatal. “I was expecting to hear, ‘So, can you give her some money?’ But my younger two said, ‘Can we go bake some cookies and have a bake sale?’ My oldest said, ‘I have $100 in the bank. Maybe it can help her?’ It didn’t occur to them to ask me [for money]. They only made $51 at the bake sale. But they felt empowered in their actions and in the way they think.”

And instilling this sense of social responsibility and ability has always been, and continues to be, the goal.

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