As a child, few things bring more joy or anticipation than a birthday – when the focus is on him or her through a festive celebration and where laughter, cake, presents, and love should abound.
For many foster children, however, where life is frequently filled with uncertainty and instability, there are few guarantees that their birthday will be remembered, much less celebrated.
But that’s no longer true for foster kids living in Missouri’s Texas County — birthdays have once again become a special occasion.
“Back in 2020, some corporate sponsors who helped provide Christmas gifts for foster kids had to stop their assistance,” explains Paul Richardson, lead pastor of Licking (Missouri) Assembly of God. “We were asked if we could provide Christmas gifts instead, and the congregation responded amazingly, filling SUVs full of gifts for approximately 80 to 100 foster kids.”
It was at that point that Richardson posed a question to the Texas County supervisor, asking her: “If there was one thing you wished you could do for kids in foster care, if you had a bigger budget or less red-tape, what would that be?”
The supervisor shared about the Birthday in a Bag project that had been successfully done elsewhere — each foster child would receive a “birthday bag” with the ingredients to make a cake with his or her foster family along with a gift.
“In that moment, I felt the Lord stir something in my heart to present this to the congregation,” Richardson says. “The following Sunday, when the idea was presented to the congregation, people immediately volunteered to help.”
Richardson explains that each month the church is given a list of kids’ first names, ages, and genders. Members of the congregation are then invited to choose one or several of these kids and go shopping for them.
“They buy age-appropriate gifts and a gift bag,” Richardson says. “The church provides the cake mix, icing, and a handmade birthday card created by a volunteer in the church wishing them a happy birthday.”
Although congregation members aren’t permitted to interact with the foster children for privacy concerns, the gifts are given to state workers to distribute to the kids. The cake mix also provides opportunities for families fostering children to do something fun, spend some quality time together, and possibly break down some barriers and grow their relationship.
Cindy Ortega, the AC/FCS Social Service Unit supervisor for Texas County Children’s Division for nine years, says that the Birthday in a Bag ministry has been a blessing to foster parents and foster children.
“The foster parents have been very appreciative, especially when there’s a kinship (family or friend of the child) placement,” Ortega says. “And the children have been very surprised and thankful — some have cried.”
Julie, Paul’s wife, leads the Birthday in a Bag effort for the church. She says that it’s not only the foster children or foster parents who are impacted by the ministry.
“The state workers have been surprised by the constant generosity by our church,” she says. “This is not a one-time gift, but an ongoing effort to make sure each foster child receives a birthday gift (every year).”
“This, for us, is a simple way to show love to kids by celebrating something that is uniquely theirs — their birthday,” Paul Richardson says. “We have been told that foster families love making the cakes together.”
Ortega confirms that the process of making the cake has been huge for some families.
“Spending that quality time together communicates to kids that they matter,” Ortega says. “It breaks down some of the walls they have put up . . . their foster parents are doing it not because they have to, but because they want to, and they care. That goes a long way with kids.”
Ortega shares the story of how one teen foster child, who returned home on a trial home placement visit, received her Birthday in a Bag. At first the teen didn’t want to make the cake with her mother, but with some encouragement from Ortega to send pictures, the teen relented and got involved.
“The mother later gave me a big hug and thanked me — the experience convinced her she could do it (be a good mother),” Ortega recalls. “For the daughter, it was rough at first, but as they got started it got better and became a great bonding experience for them that they would have never had (without the Birthday in a Bag).”
Ortega notes that things taken for granted in a functional family, are things that often mean a lot to foster kids and parents.
“Kids, especially the younger ones, get really excited that someone took the time to buy them something they actually like,” Ortega says. “The littlest things mean a lot and we’re thankful and blessed that the Licking church does that for us and our children here in Texas County.”
Although Licking Assembly is impacting the lives of nearly 100 foster children every year through Birthday in a Bag, the potential for other churches to do something similar in their communities is out there.
“This all started with relationship,” Julie says. “Paul was approached by the Division of Family Services to provide a place for foster families to come together. This opened a door for the state workers to ask for help to make sure all the foster children had a Christmas gift and later, a birthday gift. The best person/organization to reach out to is your county’s Department of Family Services and to be willing to help in any capacity to create relationships to build on.”