Make a Wish: Chenault told her college guidance counselor that she wanted to be Oprah. Matthew Shelley

Personalities

The Birthday Party Project Wants All Children to Feel Celebrated

Paige Chenault throws birthday parties for homeless kids, some of whom have never had one.

Paige Chenault has thrown approximately 7,000 birthday parties since the 2012 launch of her nonprofit, simply called The Birthday Party Project, which coordinates monthly celebrations for children in homeless and transitional living facilities across the country. But she still remembers every detail about the very first.

They kept it simple. There were Costco cakes, construction paper place mats, temporary tattoos, and a football to celebrate 11 birthdays in the cafeteria of Family Gateway, the first shelter Chenault convinced to give The Birthday Party Project a chance. “We really didn’t know what to expect, or if these kids would even think that we were cool,” she says. “We were celebrating with kids that were babies all the way up to 18. So we said, as a group, ‘Let’s just connect with kids. Let’s tell them who we are, ask about them, and find something to do together.’ ”

Apart from a slight cake-cutting slowdown (they’ve since switched to cupcakes), the night was a hit. After impromptu dance sessions subsided, an 11-year-old named Micah tugged at Chenault to say “thank you” for his first birthday party. Chenault still checks in with the now 18-year-old every year. “There was so much joy in that room,” she says. “I was like, This is it. It’s really working.”

When Chenault first approached Family Gateway about her idea, they stressed one thing: consistency. Chenault, who was still running a multimillion-dollar event planning company at the time, managed to convince them she wouldn’t bail after the first month. “I remember they said, ‘Kids need this. They need something to look forward to.’ I heard that loud and clear,” she says. “Yes, it’s great to fly in once a month and sprinkle some fun, but we were creating something much more important. I realized that if we were going to do this well, we’d need to put some systems in place early.”

Now, the hourlong parties are down to a science. After event planners across the country began asking how they could bring The Birthday Party Project to their cities, Chenault and her team worked hard to define and refine processes that would empower what she calls “party coordinators” and “birthday enthusiasts” to execute the events anywhere. The nonprofit held its first non-Dallas event in San Francisco in late 2013, and is currently hosting monthly parties in 14 cities across the country, including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Of all The Birthday Party Project elements, though, consistency remains the most important. “We’ve been partying at Family Gateway every third Thursday for almost seven years now,” Chenault says. “We have never missed a beat.”

The Birthday Party Project might seem like a simple enough idea. It’s also an easy one to rally around, and many have. Volunteers often deal with a monthslong waitlist to help with a party. But as with any nonprofit, it took a powerful force to get it off the ground. Five minutes with Chenault is enough to feel her passion for celebrating children, but the wife and mother’s résumé was what really made The Birthday Party Project work.

After attending Oklahoma State University—where, unsure of her future plans, she told her guidance counselor she wanted to be Oprah—Chenault followed a boy to Dallas and quickly fell into a job in the nonprofit sector. “I met a gal who had leukemia and was training for a marathon,” she says. “She asked if I could do it with her.” Chenault opted for the triathlon instead, but she did raise the most money on her team that year, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society offered her a job. Eventually she moved on to the American Heart Association, and then to a position at Run On! Dallas, where she did all of their buying and planned events.

I remember the people at Family Gateway said, ‘Kids need this. They need something to look forward to.’ I heard that loud and clear.

In 2005, after pulling off her own dream wedding on a small budget, a friend asked if she might help with her daughter’s wedding. Word spread, and by the time that wedding rolled around, she had already booked 11 events. She launched Paige Chenault Events the same year. “I mean, I like a clipboard and to be in charge of things, so I said yes,” Chenault says. “I had no idea it was something that I was ultimately going to do for a decade.”

A few years later, a pregnant Chenault was flipping through an issue of Parents magazine on a plane, looking for ideas for her future daughter’s birthday parties in a pre-Pinterest world. “We live in Dallas, so, you know, people are going to go big for birthdays,” she says. “I was really excited to use all the resources I had available to me to plan parties for her.” She then opened her copy of Time next, immediately turning to an article about impoverished children in Haiti, which featured an image of a little boy with sunken eyes and a bloated belly looking directly at the camera. “It was like he was staring into my soul,” Chenault says. “Here I was planning these incredible parties for my daughter, but what about him?”

The Birthday Party Project wouldn’t get off the ground until four years after that flight, but that little boy was never far from Chenault’s mind as she moved forward with planning events. “One of my favorite moments in a wedding is when everyone joins together on the dance floor,” she says. “Watching everybody, their expressions and how they connect with people, and the joy and the magic that’s in that room—it just kept reminding me that everyone deserves to feel that way.”

When Chenault finally decided to go for it, she refocused The Birthday Party Project’s mission. “Taking a risk on kids in other parts of the country is one thing, but it would be really hard to sustain,” Chenault says. “I realized that if we started in Dallas, in our own backyard, we could really make an impact.” Not long after Family Gateway gave The Birthday Party Project a shot, Chenault pitched the idea to Genesis Women’s Shelter. Today, 13 different facilities work with The Birthday Party Project every month in Dallas.

Two years after launching, as the reconciliation of planning big, elaborate events and those for The Birthday Party Project grew more difficult, Chenault decided to leave her company to give the nonprofit her full focus. “It was really hard to say goodbye to my other world, but then it got easier and easier,” she says.

For Chenault and countless volunteers, The Birthday Party Project has helped them understand the vast spectrum of what homelessness and domestic violence can look like. In November, just before the midterm elections, journalist Tina Brown brought her Women in the World Summit to Dallas for a second year, and partnered with Toyota to induct a 23rd member—Chenault—into its Mother of Invention program, which offers grants to women-led organizations addressing world issues (Chenault received $50,000). While onstage at the Dallas Museum of Art, Chenault shared a story about Taurus, a young man whose 17th birthday they celebrated at Family Gateway. When he was younger, his mother had abandoned him, his siblings, and his father, who, despite having a degree in physics, was unable to take care of his family, so they were living at a shelter.

Older teens typically get a gift card from The Birthday Party Project. Taurus used his to pay for his books at El Centro College. “It turns out, not only was he taking himself to and from class, but he was also working at El Centro to pay for school and maintaining a 4.2 GPA,” Chenault says. “We gathered some of our birthday enthusiast friends, called some folks, and just said, ‘We’ve got a kid that we really think is going to do tremendous things. He just needs some help.’ ” After getting nearly a full ride, Taurus is currently enrolled at SMU, and volunteers with Chenault’s nonprofit.

Each January, The Birthday Party Project throws itself a massive themed party (this year’s was “Movie Stars”), with 100 percent of ticket sales going straight to funding more parties for kids.

“I’m sure some people wonder why they should give to a birthday party when they could just give directly to the shelters, but I think feeling seen and celebrated is just as important as something like food, clothing, and shelter,” Chenault says. “When we began The Birthday Party Project, I thought we were going to throw some cool parties for kids who deserved it, but we’re breaking down so many socioeconomic barriers, and connecting with people in a really approachable way. I’m not only proud of it, I believe in it. I believe that’s where change happens.”

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