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Organizations Giving Back to the Newton Community: Featuring Birthday Wishes and Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston

By Kristen Bosse

No matter how tough you think your life is, there is always someone who has to face challenges that are even tougher than yours. Whether it be financial struggles, emotional pain, or even having a place to rest your head at night, everyone has hardships in their life. Luckily there are always a few organizations that are standing up and giving back to those that are less fortunate. In the Newton area, there are two groups that are doing a phenomenal job at aiding their community in their own unique way. Birthday Wishes of Newton brings the magic of a birthday party to thousands of homeless children each year. The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston advances the aspirations of families and individuals to enrich their lives, bodies and spirits, by providing the best in contemporary Jewish programs and experiences.

Birthday Wishes

Originally founded in 2002 by Lisa Vasiloff, Karen Yahara, and Carol Zwanger, Birthday Wishes has since done an amazing job at giving back to the children of homeless families. The three had spent a good amount of time volunteering at shelters in the area and realized that children's birthdays often came and went with no celebration. The shelters themselves did not have the resources or personnel to celebrate each birthday, and the mother, father, or caretaker of the child often was not emotionally stable enough to carry out the celebration on their own. It seems as though for homeless children, birthday parties are a luxury that neither the parent nor the shelter can afford.

After some thinking, the three colleagues decided to come together and help homeless children live out this important event in their lives. They formed their organization on the belief that "every child, regardless of their living situation, should have their birthday recognized and celebrated." The principles of this organization stand on the fact that something as simple as a birthday party can make a child who leads a life so different than other around them, feel like a "regular kid". Today, Birthday Wishes serves more than 185 shelters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Long Island, and New York. Executive Director Lisa Vasiloff describes their goal as, "to provide birthday parties to all homeless children in Massachusetts and to make our model available to homeless family programs nationwide."

So how exactly do these celebrations work? The programs are split into two options: the One-Site Party Program and the Birthday-in-a-Box program. The on-site program obviously takes place at the shelter, with Birthday Wishes volunteers bringing in all the party supplies and running the party. These celebrations are held once per month at each shelter, and include every child who has a birthday in that particular month. The parties are by design very simple, and demonstrate to parents with little means, that it does not take much to create a joyful environment and celebration, something they can take with them when they move out of shelter. Alternatively, the Birthday-in-a-Box program is for those shelters, motels, scattered sites, etc. that cannot accommodate the Birthday Wishes volunteers. All the supplies are packed up in brightly colored boxes and stuffed with gifts for each child. They are then specially delivered to each child!

The Newton Community has been very supportive of the Birthday Wishes' mission, willingly donating their own time and money to make sure the children of Greater Boston have a birthday. Everyone can relate to the importance of having a birthday celebration as a child. It is for this reason that there has been overwhelming support from the town since its founding. Vasiloff described their most important revenue builder, their annual CakeWalk held each May in Millenium Park.
"It reflects and leverages the grass roots nature of our organization and the emphasis on kids helping kids- which our program exemplifies. CakeWalk raised $22,000 in 2012 and $53,000 in 2013, and $111,000 in 2014. Our goal for 2015 is $150,000 and we have added a CakeWalk TEEN Run, to be held in April, which will be spearheaded by the teen leaders who participated in CakeWalk in 2014."

Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston

Originally formed in the 1960s, the JCC has always vowed to serve the Jewish population of Greater Boston and continue to enrich the lives of its inhabitants. The Boston area continues to grow more diverse, and therefore needs a support system in order to value and celebrate the uniqueness of each resident. The JCC is proud to serve more than 50,000 people in the Greater Boston area, representing 98 communities and every age and ability, including men, women and children with special needs. Although the JCC helps connect most with Jewish resources, values and traditions, it strives in every way to provide an open and welcoming setting for all, irrespective of personal practices, beliefs, or background.

Perhaps the JCC's most well known gem is the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in the heart of Newton. Adults and children alike can get fit in the JCC's expansive fitness center, take an arts or fitness class, swim in the JCC's indoor or outdoor pools, climb a rock wall, play basketball or see a show with nationally known entertainers. Some of the JCC's most diverse classes include music, painting and printmaking, Israeli dance, musical theatre, and even boot camp and self defense classes. There is truly something for everyone. Families might be most interested in the Early Learning Center nestled in the center, which provides education for children in vibrant, engaging educational environments inspired by Jewish values and traditions. Adults can engage in learning too, with adult art and dance classes available all week long. Feel like relaxing? Take a swim in either the JCC's indoor or outdoor pool! You'll never get bored with this world of opportunities to explore.

If you're really serious about your interest in the arts, attend one of the JCC's theater events, discussion series events with renowned thought-leaders, Magic Ark theatre performances for children and families, or a literary event with a bestselling author.

During the summer, the focus at the JCC shifts to its comprehensive day, overnight, and specialty camp offerings. Between JCC Camp Grossman day camp in Westwood, JCC overnight Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, JCC Kaleidoscope Creative Arts and Science Camp and JCC Summer Sports Camps (both in Newton at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC), the JCC provides fun summer experiences to thousands of campers each summer. These camps provide a fun, safe and nurturing Jewish environment for learning new skills, developing self-confidence, and making new friends.

Part of the JCC's mission is to provide programs, services and a welcoming environment for children and adults with special needs and for seniors. The JCC also provides a range of classes and programs throughout the Boston area for parents with young children. The bottom line is, the JCC is an ideal place to get healthy and fit, to learn new skills and to make friends.

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