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Celebrate! RVA throws birthday parties for at risk children

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Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) Children attend a Celebrate! RVA birthday party in Richmond, Va.

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Dozens of students line up single file at the door of Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary school in Richmond, Va., vibrating with excitement. The children vary in age and ethnicity, but they have a unifying feature: a paper party hat.

“I’m so excited I’m gonna faint!” giggles Parris, 8, as she jumps up and down while managing to stay in line.

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“This is my second one,” whispers Genesis, 8, referring to her second year-in-a-row of having a birthday party.

Founded by Julia Warren in 2013 when she was 16-years-old, the nonprofit organization Celebrate! RVA throws birthday parties for the elementary school students at Oak Grove-Bellemeade every month. Grouped together by birth month, the students celebrate with music and cake alongside their peers, teachers, and local volunteers.

But it’s more than just a two-hour party, says Ms. Warren.

“What’s really important is to create a culture of celebration, and telling these kids that they are rock stars. And that’s what we do – tell each kid that they matter and that they deserve to be surrounded by people who want to celebrate them,” she says. “Whether it’s in school or on the basketball court, we need to tell these kids they matter.”

Mary Valenze, community and schools coordinator at Oak Grove, says students and teachers alike eagerly anticipate each month’s party.

“I’m sure some of our children do have birthday parties at home, but for some of our kids this is a bigger deal than normal,” Ms. Valenze says. “To get to see kids who may not have the best home situation forget about that for an hour and not worry about things that may be going on at home – it’s nice.”

Oak Grove-Bellemeade ranks below 98.5 percent of elementary schools in Virginia. And among public elementary schools in Richmond, Oak Grove-Bellemeade was 22nd among 26 schools.

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Hillside Court, the neighborhood surrounding Oak Grove-Bellemeade, has a crime rate 140 percent higher than the national average. In fact, one survey suggest that 99 percent of Virginia cities are safer than Hillside.

“Bringing awareness to our community through Celebrate! is a great thing,” Valenze says. “A lot of people don’t know that much about this area, so it’s a whole different experience for them.”

Richmond police Lt. Dave Naoroz says when he first heard about the Celebrate events at Oak Grove-Bellemeade, he thought it was “fantastic.” After getting in touch with Juila, Lieutenant Naoroz began attending monthly parties and inviting his colleagues to do the same.

“Once officers are assigned to it, they keep asking ‘Hey when is the next one?’ ” Naoroz says. “We try to plug ourselves into the community, but Celebrate! gives us the chance to sit down and interact with a big group of kids, just by eating cake with them and finding out their birthday wish.”

It doesn’t take long to find similarities between the students and his own son, a third grader.

“We obviously don’t take the badge off, but metaphorically, we sit down and take the badge off,” Naoroz says. “It makes us less of a cop and more of a person. It’s good for the kids, and it’s definitely good for the police.”

With a long list of donors and volunteers from across the city, Celebrate! brings light into an often dark part of Richmond.

“I can talk all day about the importance of a birthday party and what joy can do for a child’s heart, but a lot of donors want numbers,” Warren says. “They can see numbers from a food bank and from the children’s hospital – but joy is such an intangible thing.”

She quickly learned that the best way to explain the impact of Celebrate! to donors was to invite them to a party.

“That’s when it really clicks for them that they are creating happiness and giving these children an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise," Warren says. "It gives a personal connection to our mission.”

• Learn more about Celebrate! RVA at http://celebraterva.org.