By Annika Hauer
For the Reporter
After an 8-year-old girl placed a crown on her head at a birthday party thrown by Renton nonprofit Birthday Dreams, she told a volunteer, “Thank you for making me feel like a princess today.”
Birthday Dreams has been working since 2009 to bring birthday parties to homeless kids in Renton. The nonprofit began in the garages of two moms: Chris Spahn, who is the nonprofit’s executive director, and Shannon Avery.
Birthday Dreams now works with more than 80 homeless shelters in the Puget Sound region. Shelters in Renton it works with include Griffin Home, Reach Center of Hope, Renton School District McKinney-Vento, Vision House, Way Back Inn, and YWCA Renton.
Birthday parties are delivered in two ways. The first is in a box. Decorations, cake, presents, gift bags and supplies are delivered to parents so they can throw a party for their child at no cost.
Birthday Dreams delivers in this way so kids see their parents as the heroes, rather than the business as one, said executive director Spahn. Group parties are also thrown, every month at six different shelters, for any child who had a birthday.
Some kids get a party multiple times in their childhood.
“A lot of the housing is transitional and they can stay up to two years, but sometimes they jump between housing and they’re in the system way longer than we want them to be,” said Spahn.
The hope is for families to get permanent housing, but when that doesn’t happen, Birthday Dreams is dedicated to continue delivering parties.
Through shelter agreements, caseworkers submit an application online with the child’s name, age, preferred theme, and wishlist.
“They always have several gifts to open, and then they always have at least one big gift,” Spahn said, noting that gifts range from toys to books to clothes.
The parties are tailored to what the kids want, and in more than just the theme. If a child doesn’t want ‘Happy Birthday’ sung or party games, Birthday Dreams makes those wishes come true, too. “It’s not about us or about giving them the attention, it’s about the kids,” Spahn said.
Spahn’s inspiration and commitment to Birthday Dreams is shaped by an interaction she had with a 17-year-old who attended a past gala. The teen kept his own birthday box from his birthday celebration seven years ago, she recounted.
“He and his sister kept their boxes from their birthdays, and whenever they moved, which was a lot, they would put their special things in the box to take with them,” Spahn said. “He credits Birthday Dreams with really changing his life. He was very shy and reserved, just scared of people.”
Then he and his mom, who is a veteran, moved into Compass Housing Alliance across from Renton High School, escaping her abusive husband.
“All of a sudden, there’s this birthday party for him, and all the kids from the shelter were there to celebrate with him,” Spahn said. “He credits that welcoming feeling of people just loving on him from the very start with giving him confidence, and that feeling of ‘Hey, I am special.’”
According to its 2022 report, the organization celebrated 1,306 children last year alone. As of September last year, the nonprofit celebrated its 12,000th birthday party. The volunteers currently deliver an average 125 parties per week.
In 2022, hundreds of volunteers donated 6,000 hours of their time. With the help of birthday cakes baked, parties planned, sorted, and distributed, each party costs $150 to put on.
The organization serves kids aged 1-18. Of the children served in 2022, 35% were aged 10 or older, and 11% were 15 or older.
Whether people are couch surfing or living in their cars, Birthday Dreams will answer any birthday call and will help find a location for the party, too.
“We are here for anyone who hears about us, because we’re kind of a well-kept secret, so we’re trying to change that. We want the kids to know that we’re here,” said Spahn.
Over the past few years, there has been high employee turnover in homeless shelters and social work. This caused many shelters to not know Birthday Dreams existed, so the nonprofit spent much of this past year calling to remind people of its services.
“I used to say that our goal is to be put out of business, that the homeless problem would be solved, but it’s just not realistic at this point. We haven’t figured it out yet. So we just want to continue to make sure that every homeless child is celebrated on their birthday,” said Spahn.
Chelsea Mae Davatos, recent graduate of a Renton high school, is a volunteer for Birthday Dreams. She currently bakes birthday cakes for the parties, which she has done for the past four years.
“The kids loved it. They loved the cake and opening their presents and they got to be normal kids. They were wild, and funny. They were kind of crazy, sometimes,” she said.
She was also the volunteer who supplied her former pageant crowns for a little girl’s princess-themed birthday party.
“I really connected with her. I think I saw myself in her a little bit, just with being into princesses and crowns. She was 8 and I was 14, so we really weren’t that far apart in age,” said Davatos.
Birthday Dreams allows kids to embrace what it means to be a kid and have wishes fulfilled.
“This organization has a deep place in my heart,” she said. “It got me through a lot of quarantine, and high school. It’s a place where a kid can be what they want, whether that’s a ninja or a fairy.”
Birthday Dreams’ annual gala, which raised $230,000 last year, is Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Hyatt Regency Lake Washington in Renton. Tickets are available for purchase on the Birthday Dreams website, birthdaydreams.org.
Anyone looking to get a party for a child can call the Birthday Dreams office at 425-988-3954.
To volunteer with the nonprofit, visit the website for more details.