The Rotary Club of Woonsocket and Woonsocket Public Schools have partnered to ensure that every child has a birthday celebration, regardless of their living circumstances.
Birthday in a Bag collaborators

Nicole Brien, president of the Rotary, said that although the idea of “Birthday in a Bag” was first brought to the club’s attention years ago, there wasn’t a lot of interest. When Brien heard that the Rotary in Smithfield had a similar program, though, she jumped right on it. “Who doesn’t want a cake for their birthday?” Brien rhetorically asked The Breeze.

In collaboration with Kimberly Blais, executive secretary to the superintendent of Woonsocket Public Schools, they identify the students and families who may not, for one circumstance or another, realistically be able to celebrate their birthday with a party. According to Brien, students are usually either in foster care, homeless, or identified as financially disadvantaged.

Blais then reaches out to the families to see if they’d like a bag, and if so, what their child’s favorite color is, what kind of toys they might enjoy, their clothing size, and the like.

Because of school privacy guidelines, the Rotary does not know who the families are, so Brien says that when she buys the cake she also buys a tube of icing for the parents to write the child’s name on it themselves. The decision whether to provide a boxed cake mix and icing as an activity for the family to make together, or a pre-made bakery cake, was discussed, she said. The pre-made cake won out in interest of including unhoused students whose families may not have access to a kitchen.

The bag also includes a present for the child, a voucher for a large pizza from Park Ave Pizza, streamers, cutlery, a tablecloth, juice boxes, snacks, and sometimes a party game. Brien expressed flexibility with what ends up in the bags at the end of the day, based on what she knows about the student and their living situation.

“If the toys need batteries, too, we try to include those,” Brien said, expressing that they try to be thoughtful and holistic with the bags. “Sometimes parents come in crying, saying that they didn’t know how they were going to give their kid a birthday.”

Some challenges that Blais faces, Brien reported, are that parents don’t always call her back, which shrinks the amount of bags they can hand out. Sometimes the parents can’t pick up the bags for their child for whatever reason, so Blais drops them off herself.

“I commend her for going the extra mile,” Brien said, emphasizing how integral Blais is to the entire operation, from identifying students to communicating with parents to making sure the students receive their bags in the end.

Although the program began with just elementary students, when it was communicated to the Rotary how many homeless high school students there are, they expanded to the secondary level as well.

Because the Rotary can’t hand out money or gift cards, they have to purchase all the products that go into the bags. Brien herself shops for the students across all ages, and when shopping for a high-school student, opts for duffle bags with a sweatshirt, snacks, and other age-appropriate gifts. Instead of a full cake, she said, she’ll go for the cupcakes instead.

“This program began at the end of last school year and it was well received,” Brien said, adding that they have at least one birthday a week, and sometimes more. This year, they’ve given out 26 bags so far. Since the program began, they’ve distributed 34 bags total, with no signs of stopping.

Birthdays are important to Brien, a cancer survivor, who says that every birthday is a reminder that she made it one more year. “It brings tears to your eyes of joy, just the impact that it makes,” she said, also pointing out: “You want some recognition of your special day.

Story by VIVIAN TRUTZL Valley Breeze Staff Writer