Tammy Kubo and this family of six kids take a time out from pillowcase painting to pose for a picture.
When we walk into the party, kids bump into us during a raucous game of chase, laugh and say a hurried “excuse me!” before running off. Others are intently painting pillowcases with bright flowers and palm trees or American flags with their names between the stripes. As music plays in the background, the aroma of homemade beef stew fills the air. Before we know it, the stew will be happily devoured, along with two Costco-size sheet cakes and buckets of ice cream.
This birthday celebration is the same as any other we’ve ever been to, except this one is at the Next Step Project, a state-run homeless shelter in Kakaako. In July 2006, Tammy Kubo, a shelter coordinator and owner of Hawaii Pet Nanny, had the novel idea of throwing a birthday party at Next Step to celebrate the children whose birthdays fell in that month. She’s been known as the Birthday Lady ever since.
“The children used to run up to me calling me the Birthday Lady and telling me everything they wanted for their birthdays,” Kubo says. “But, eventually, I lost track because they kept changing their minds!”
When Kubo first visited Next Step several years ago, she couldn’t believe there were so many children. “I guess when you envision homelessness, you don’t see the children,” she says. “But they’re not sad like you might think. They're happy, good kids who just happen to live in a homeless shelter."
Now instead of birthdays passing unmarked, the children's lives are celebrated the way they should be.
After helping build a cheery, hand-painted play area for the kids and developing relationships with them, Kubo realized the difference she could make by simply giving them something about which most other children don't think twice. "Some of our children didn't even know when their birthdays were. So they picked a month to celebrate from now on," she says. Now instead of birthdays passing unmarked, the children's lives are celebrated the way they should be—with a big party.
Remembering times in her own life when her family struggled to keep birthday traditions going on a "shoestring budget," Kubo says: "I never felt poor during those times because my parents always made me feel so loved. They always found a way to make me feel so special," even if it meant making birthday hats out of newspaper. Kubo applies the same philosophy to the Next Step parties. In addition to the party, each of the children receives a goody bag filled with toiletries, toys and candy, while the birthday kids receive their own hand-picked, wrapped gifts.
In giving to the children, Kubo has helped the parents, too.
They're all good parents who love their children and want the best for them, but they can't afford a birthday gift on their own," Kubo says. “So, really, it’s a family celebration.”
The party grows each month and has spread to other state-run shelters around Oahu, and now Kauai, with the help of many other birthday ladies, men and sponsors.
“The parties are something we all look forward to every month,” says Harris Nakamoto, vice president and general manager of Summerlin Life & Health Insurance, which helps sponsor the parties at Next Step. Kubo could never throw the parties she does without support from companies such as Summerlin and Ko Olina Charities. The extraordinary thing, she says, is that the sponsors don’t just write checks every month—they show up at the parties, often with their own children. Each month, employees from a different department at Summerlin volunteer to help handle the crafts, food and gifts at Next Step. “Some employees keep coming even after they leave the company,” Nakamoto says. “Because once you connect with the families, you find a way to give. It’s so rewarding getting to know the kids and seeing them change and grow.”
More support is always needed. The shelter in Kapolei, for instance, houses more children than adults. Sponsors such as Summerlin are always looking for others to join in and get involved in any way they can to help give children birthdays they will remember for years to come.
Reflecting on her own childhood, Kubo says, "I don't remember the monetary things. I remember the feelings. I remember the parties—not the favorite gifts or dresses, even though I'm sure I wanted those things—I remember the good feelings." The Birthday Lady and her helpers are certainly giving homeless children around the state birthdays they won't forget—there's just one catch. They might owe her dinner when they grow up.
"I tell them, when you get older you have to take me out to get saimin when you get jobs," she says. "I always talk to the children with no doubt in my mind that they're going to be successful adults."