In 2011, Megan Yunn was teaching the word “accustomed” to an 11-year-old girl named Beverly in an afterschool program. “What are you accustomed to eating at a birthday party?” she asked.
The girl’s reply shocked her: “I’ve never had a birthday party.”
“I felt embarrassed,” Yunn recalled. “It had never crossed my mind that there might be children out there not having a very happy birthday.”
Yunn decided to do something about that problem. Nine years later, the nonprofit she founded in 2012, Beverly’s Birthdays, works with 90 child-serving agencies to recognize the birthdays of 30,000 children each year, from one-year-olds to teenagers. In 2019, the organization held 1,800 parties, most of them at family centers and residential facilities. “It’s our way of validating to children that they are important,” Yunn says bluntly.
In mid-March, Yunn knew that COVID-19 would interrupt normal birthday party programming for a while, so she asked her agency contacts, “What is the best way that we can spread cheer?” The responses were consistent: focus on babies and their families.
Yunn knew from personal experience that baby formula was a common area of need. Two of her four children, when young, needed a special formula that cost $32 a can. Each one went through about 10 cans a month, and insurance didn’t cover it.
What she didn’t know was that local food banks don’t supply formula. And when the WIC program temporarily stopped taking applications early in the pandemic, the threat to newly unemployed families with babies became even greater.
“An entire demographic was being left out,” Yunn said. “Imagine being a mother in crisis who doesn’t know how she will feed her child.” So to fill the gap, this modest-sized agency of nine staff became DHS’s infant supply storage closet.
As of early June, Beverly’s Birthdays had secured and distributed $120,000 of formula, diapers, baby wipes, snack packs, hygiene items and baby food.
They did it through sheer effort—promoting a crowdfunding program, making arrangements to buy items at cost from Giant Eagle, scheduling pickups by 93 agencies, turning their small office into a warehouse with boxes stacked to the ceiling, and renting two portable units for extra storage space.
Instead of slowing down because the pandemic was making normal parties impossible, Yunn’s staff is working harder than ever – showing up at 6:00 a.m. to manage inventory and schedule pickups on top of holding virtual birthday parties. “I have the best staff,” Yunn stated. “They are extremely committed to the mission of letting families and children know that they matter.”
Because of their reputation as experts in celebration, Beverly’s Birthdays was also asked to spread cheer to graduating seniors in the child welfare system. They responded by preparing individualized graduation cakes and gifts for 91 youth.
It’s been quite a performance in giving back for a nonprofit whose main product—birthday parties—could easily be viewed as expendable in hard times.
“I will never forget when [now-retired DHS administrator] Walter Smith gave us our first contract. He said, ‘I think it’s time we sprinkled a little glitter on DHS,’” commented Yunn. Beverly’s Birthdays has more than repaid the favor by spreading joy all over Allegheny County in the midst of crisis.