Throughout her life, Sonika Menon’s parents have always made a big deal for her birthday, with a homemade cake, decorations, gifts and family get-togethers. Her family also always instilled in her the importance of community service. When she was 13 years old, Sonika decided she wanted to follow in their footsteps and help pay it forward in her own Plainfield, IL community. That year, she started the nonprofit organization, The Birthday Giving Program, as a way to help honor the birthdays of people who don’t normally receive celebrations like the ones Sonika grew up with.
The Birthday Giving Program brings gift bags and cake to kids at her local Boys and Girls Club and homeless shelters, as well as to adults in shelters, senior citizens in nursing homes, veterans, and adults with physical or mental challenges. Since being founded in May 2017, the organization has delivered over 1,530 birthday bags and over 200 cakes, as well as raised over $17,000. Sonika is now 16 and serves as the CEO of the organization, and has expanded it with chapters in Tennessee and Florida. She has been reaching out to high schools in other states in the hopes of creating even more chapters across the country, in order to bring the joy and happiness that comes with celebrating birthdays to as many people as possible.
Describe your volunteer role with The Birthday Giving Program.
The Birthday Giving Program is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We provide birthday bags which include gifts such as toys, stuffed animals, balloons, socks, gloves, clothing items, and we customize the bags to fit the need of the recipient. If it’s an adult, we include clothing items, socks, stuff like that, and if it’s a kid, we do toys. My cousin also serves senior citizens and veterans. We customize the bags to meet the needs of the recipient. We also provide cakes as well. We sometimes make the cakes and sometimes we buy, depending on the budget, and we provide enough cake so that all the people at the center or the homeless shelter are able to join in for the birthday celebration. We also have two chapters right now. We have [the main organization] in Illinois and then we have two chapters in Tennessee and Florida.
We provide the bags to the children who attend the centers, for example, the Boys and Girls Club of Joliet. With the adults, we are partnered with some organizations who serve adults who have physical or mental challenges, such as the Individual Advocacy Group, so we provide the bags to those individuals. Then with the senior citizens, we’re partnered with some nursing homes in Illinois. With the veterans, one of my representatives in Tennessee, her name is Marie, she is partnered with Operation Stand Down which helps veterans, so she delivers to the veterans at that [organization].
For some of our organizations, we actually celebrate with the kids and the recipients. For example, with the Boys and Girls Club of Joliet, we’re actually able to stay there for the party, help serve cake and pass out the bags. For some of our other organizations, they don’t allow us to meet the recipients due to privacy purposes, so for those organizations, we just drop off the bags.
When did you want to start this organization, and why did you want to?
I started it in May of 2017 when I was 13. A lot of people in my family are actively involved with community service, like my grandparents who immigrated from India in 1954. They opened a temple in Illinois and that’s helped serve members of our community here. One of my aunts on my dad’s side of the family, she used to work with homeless shelters and she always told me stories about how nice it was to help other people and that really motivated me. I wanted to experience that feeling of helping others for myself, so that’s why I started the Birthday Giving Program.
Why was helping people celebrate birthdays important to you?
I always thought about how on my own birthday, my parents always celebrated with lots of joy and they always went all out. My mom always bakes a cake and they decorate the house for me. I just feel like birthdays are a really fun way to help other people because the celebration doesn’t only last for one day or one hour. It can really last for a lifetime. I feel like it’s important to really keep and cherish those memories because we’re not only celebrating a birthday, we’re celebrating people’s accomplishments and we’re celebrating their ability to overcome difficult challenges.
Can you describe what it’s like when you’re able to stay and interact with the recipients?
When we meet the recipients, it’s really an amazing feeling. I get a really warm feeling in my heart to see everyone happy and to see them experience so much joy when we are giving them something we often take for granted. For example, some of the kids at the Boys and Girls Club, they take two or three pieces of cake, and for some of them it might be their first time eating cake, so they’re really happy. They always talk to us and they always remember us. With the places where we actually get to interact with the recipients, it’s not just a matter of serving the cake and then leaving. A lot of them remember us, they talk to us, so it’s like we’re forming a sort of friendship. It’s a really valuable friendship and I think it’s really amazing to be able to connect with these people.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the centers and organizations you’re visiting?
I think they really like what we’re doing for them. For a lot of these organizations, they’ve never really had someone do anything like this for them before. Some organizations have done birthdays for them, but they’re not very consistent. They just drop off some stuff for one month and then they forget about it the next month. For us, I think what makes us different is we try to be as consistent as possible. I reach out on a monthly basis to each organization, asking them if they need anything for the month. Even if they don’t respond to the email, we go the extra mile, we really call them to figure everything out. We’ve gotten positive feedback even from the people we can’t meet. Some of them write letters to us. We’re partnered with a few organizations in downtown Chicago and for them we normally drop off the bags, but they also mail us letters from the recipients who have written back, so it’s really nice to see their feedback and how happy they are.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding part has definitely been being able to meet so many new people and form so many new relationships with them. I think just connecting with them has really been rewarding. I think being able to say we have two chapters in other states is also very rewarding, because now I have other volunteers who are experiencing the same happiness I’m experiencing when I’m providing these birthday parties to people in need. It’s great that other people are also able to help their communities and realize helping others is very important. It gives you a sense of satisfaction that you’re able to make a difference in the world and in your community.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I think something I’ve learned is I often take a lot of things for granted, especially with my birthday parties and stuff. We don’t do anything extremely extravagant, but just with the stuff that we do get — like the gifts my family gives and the get-togethers we have — I think it’s important to realize not everyone is as fortunate as I have been. There’s so many people who are going through much more difficult challenges than I’m going through. In high school right now, I’ll be worried about the tests I have tomorrow or my tests that I have later in the week, but other people have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to eat dinner tonight. I think it’s important to realize that people have much more difficult challenges than what I’m going through.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think people don’t realize that one person can really make a difference. When I started this, I was very inexperienced. I remember the first meeting I had was just my mom and I and a director. We had a two-hour meeting, and we didn’t know what we were doing or anything, and we didn’t even know if this whole idea was going to work. Eventually, I started this on my own, but now I have so many other people who are helping me out. I think it’s important to give back because you need to realize that everyone has the ability to make a difference. Everyone has the potential to do something great. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can always give your time. If you don’t have a lot of time, you can always give money. There’s always something you can do to help other people.
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