For approximately seven years, Sweet Celebrations not only has been providing personalized birthday parties for children and teens experiencing homelessness but also has simultaneously been showing them they’re worthy of such a celebration.
“I would say, easily, 80 to 90 percent of the children have never had a birthday party before, and we are not just talking about a one-year-old but all the way up to an 18- or 19-year-old,” says Beth Forti, founder of Sweet Celebrations.
“We are really seeing it has a huge impact on the children to have those celebrations, but we are also seeing a really big impact with the parents, as well. Because what we are finding out is these parents have never really celebrated their children – and not because of lack of effort or love – but actually a lack of they’ve never been celebrated, so they’ve never seen the importance of celebrating their child. So we are breaking that trend and showing them that this is something to support them.”
Sweet Celebrations began in 2013 after Forti saw the impact a birthday celebration had on Shalei Taylor, her little sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri program.
“Nearing Shalei’s 15th birthday, she and her family had lost their home and were living in shelters and motels,” Forti recalls. “On her actual 15th birthday, she lost all places to stay, and they were going to stay in their car. Shalei called me to share the devastating news, and I told her not to worry and that I would see her that evening for her birthday.”
After hanging up with Shalei, Forti put a callout for help onto Facebook, which resulted in not only temporary shelter, but also funds for a celebration.
“Some people were donating and saying, ‘Buy her a birthday cake’ or ‘Buy her a birthday present that’s specific for her birthday celebration,’” Forti says. “They thought her birthday celebration was just as important as housing. So we did that. We celebrated her birthday in style.”
And apparently, that celebration saved Taylor’s life.
“She shared with me [on her 16th birthday] that she was just kind of at a really bad place at the time, and after she saw me on her 15th birthday, she actually had plans to commit suicide,” Forti says. “But knowing there were strangers out there who wanted her to celebrate her birthday and loved her more than she loved herself, she knew that she needed to, in her words, prove that she was worth it.”
Taylor’s testimony sparked the start of Sweet Celebrations, which celebrates children and teens within more than 28 St. Louis shelters with personalized parties. Birthdays include a theme of the child’s choice (or parent’s choice if the child is too young), a personalized cake with ice cream, decorations, goodie bags and presents – including a Build-A-Bear Workshop custom teddy bear donated by founder Maxine Clark.
“We pride ourselves on making every birthday personalized for that particular child,” Forti says. “We want that child to know that birthday is specifically for them.”
Forti, alongside her trusty team of volunteers, makes all décor for the celebrations in their Chesterfield mall facility.
“The reason we make all of the birthday decorations, banners and goodie bags is to be able to personalize it for each child, as well as keeping it economical,” Forti says. “These parents are still able to provide these birthday parties for their children. They’re not seeing some ta-da, and then they are unable to give that to their children [in future years].”
Sweet Celebrations celebrates approximately 30 children per month and hopes to add graduation parties this year, too, in addition to its already existing Christmas and Easter celebrations.
“It is the biggest blessing,” Forti says. “Everyone always says it takes someone with a big heart to do this, but honestly, I think I get something out of it more than the children do. Founding Sweet Celebrations has completely impacted my life in so many positive ways.”
Sweet Celebrations, 577 Castle Ridge Drive, Ballwin, 314-537-9856, sweet-celebrations.org