At the Salvation Army children’s shelter, 12 kids got a surprise Tuesday — a group birthday party.
The party, which included pizza, games and presents, is the mission of Nick Estrada and the team behind Happy Birthday Inc. The group, which celebrated its own first birthday in May, works to bring an hour of fun and normalcy to children living in the Kansas City area foster care system.
Erin Eaton, director of the Salvation Army children’s shelter, said events like this one can really help kids who may have been experiencing incredibly difficult problems at home before they arrived at the shelter.
Eaton said that once Estrada reached out to try one of the parties at the Salvation Army, the ball started rolling. She said that while the shelter has a lot of volunteers and programs around the holidays, the mission of Happy Birthday Inc. is year-round.
The parties aim to help children get through what may be the worst experience of their young lives, she said.
“It’s just another way for them to feel special and know that people do love them and do care about them,” Eaton said.
It was an easy decision for Estrada to start Happy Birthday Inc. once he realized what he could do to help foster kids.
“I know how to party, so I can put that to good use,” Estrada joked.
The Independence native said he wasn’t raised by his real father and understood a piece of what these children go through. He said he saw that many foster kids were not given the birthday celebrations most children are accustomed to.
So Estrada began organizing, and a little over a year ago he started Happy Birthday Inc. with several of his friends. Estrada’s childhood best friend, Derek Dowell, is treasurer and the group has two other board members, Laura Kackley and Matt Terwilliger.
The group is looking to expand its operation to more group homes in the area.
“Most of these kids have never had a birthday party because of their home life,” Estrada said.
For the past year, monthly birthday parties have taken place at the Gillis children’s shelter, where they set up a large group game like dodgeball and serve the kids pizza and ice cream.
The Salvation Army group home is a smaller facility, and the group is still trying to evaluate what kind of party is best for the needs of those children. Tuesday was a test run of sorts for the facility, where the children played board games, ate pizza and received small presents.
Dowell said that at the Gillis home they let the kids select their gifts. Children don’t ever ask for fancy gifts, he said, but often necessities like new shoes or clothes.
“It’s very humbling,” Dowell said.
No one who works for Happy Birthday Inc. is paid, Estrada said. But they’ve had over 100 additional volunteers, called party masters, who have helped out with parties over the last year. Some have become regular volunteers for the organization.
Estrada describes the group as an “on ramp” to get volunteers connected with the needs of local foster children.
Estrada said the resources for the parties are small. The group brings pizza, small gifts and ice cream, but the most important part of the parties is the quality time spent playing with the kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have had a special day.
“Sometimes we take for granted how special a birthday is,” Estrada said. “It’s basically just going around and saying how great it is you’re just here.”