Julia Warren was 16 when a conversation with a child stopped her in her tracks.
While volunteering at Bellemeade Elementary School she asked a young student a series of standard questions: What do you do for fun? How old are you? When is your birthday? The little boy didn’t know the exact date and could only confirm that he was born “when it was cold outside.” He’d never had a birthday party. For Warren, this was unfathomable.
“Joy is critical to development,” she says. “Joy is fundamental.”
What started as a yearlong experiment holding monthly group parties has evolved into a nonprofit that will soon have a permanent home in the East End. With the help of volunteers, the organization has held hundreds of birthday parties for disadvantaged kids, with activities like potato sack races, face painting, balloon animals and crafts. When it’s time for cake, each child sits down behind a confetti-filled placemat with his or her name on it and receives a cupcake with a candle. Warren says the moment when the guests of honor squeeze their eyes shut to make wishes gets her every time.
The Celebrate RVA headquarters, slated to open in 2020, will function as a community center with a party room, staff offices and space to conduct a new program that emphasizes the importance of experiencing joy while dealing with trauma.
“We really want to teach them that joy can live in that space as well, and they deserve that,” she explains. “It’s OK to be happy when your dad’s locked up, or when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from. It doesn’t make it any easier, but they deserve to be able to find that happiness.”