I had a sleepover party when I turned eight. We chewed huge wads of Hubba Bubba and sang our favorite TV show theme songs.
You probably have birthday memories of your own. But the birthdays of kids in foster care are often not celebrated or even acknowledged. Let that rest with you for a moment.
Located on Capitol Hill, Family & Youth Initiative (DCFYI), a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, aims to fill the gaps in the lives of young people in foster care. A part of that is to create birthday memories with an annual birthday celebration of all the DCFYI kids. Founder Susan Punnett has organized these summer celebrations for well over a decade.
“We often talk about DCFYI as family, in part because of our unconditional approach and staying with young people as long as they want to stay connected to us,” said Punnett. “There are former participants who are now reaching their thirties and still think of themselves as part of the DCFYI extended family. And like any family, we have our traditions. The birthday party is a favorite. We can’t do individual parties for every teen’s birthday, but we can do it up big once a year for everyone.”
It’s always an old-school party with games, food, and gifts, water balloons, three-legged races, and egg on a spoon. Musical chairs? Oh, yeah.
Forging relationships between the kids and volunteers starts with an ice-breaker – put a fun fact about yourself in a bowl, and everyone at the party picks one and tries to find its owner. Myron Smith learned about DCYFI at the H Street Festival in 2006 and has been a volunteer ever since. “DCFYI was innovative – that’s what drew my attention,” he said. The birthday parties bring “belonging and acknowledgment – oftentimes, these are things foster kids don’t get.”
“Pretty much everyone, no matter how old, wants the piece of cake with their name on it. Over the years we’ve learned what’s important to teens and we try to value that,
like any family would,” Punnett said. The cake may be homemade or not, and the presents vary, but there are always photo albums. “DCFYI collects photos of the kids over the year, catching them at bowling and the other events. They may have forgotten what they’ve done, but here’s a memento, a reminder of what they’ve done, and it’s a sense of belonging. It’s a big hit.” said Smith.
Every kid gets to pick from a table stacked with gifts. Oscar chose a mature blue and tan quilt and returned to his table, smiling shyly. His gift bag held a mug, cake, a journal and pen, and fun snacks. He really liked the quilt, but he was anxious to resume his conversation with volunteer Sarada, examining the veracity of religion. Ooookay, who wants cake?
Mind you, this deep conversation was right after Oscar slayed at a serious game of musical chairs. There were technical difficulties with the music, so a quick pivot to the piano and a teen who absolutely cannot play piano produced a hilariously discordant and chaotic soundtrack to an exciting match.
This was a great party (inside, thanks to the 19th St. Baptist Church), and that’s what it’s all about – the teens getting to hang out, be the center of attention if they like, or having the attention of an actively listening adult.
DCFYI aims to provide teens in foster care the consistency of caring adults, and not only at parties. There are many ways DCFYI volunteers show support. Mentors establish long-term bonds with teens. Some volunteers shuttle kids to monthly DCFYI events, and some host kids for weekend visits. DCFYI’s Open Table members build relationships and specifically support young adults in achieving goals they set for themselves. Prospective adoptive parents join the program so they can meet older kids who want a family. Some people support DCFYI financially.
Kayla’s first DCFYI birthday party was three years ago. The parties are “more to get the kids together, and it was really cool. I was excited about getting to pick out my own quilt. I still have it – it’s different shades of blue.” she said.
What has Kayla gotten out of the program? Friends in similar situations, for one thing. “They were welcoming. I was more shy and they were more outgoing and charismatic. A lot of the kids don’t look like they’ve been through a lot. They try to make other people happy.”
If DCFYI sounds like it’s for you, there are monthly online mentor trainings and space at Open Table. If financial support is more your thing, you can donate online at www.dcfyi.org any time, or attend Establishing Roots, the DCFYI annual fundraiser at Eastern Market North Hall on October 11.
Heather Schoell is a 27-year resident of Capitol Hill and a DCFYI volunteer. Minors’ names have been changed.