The atmosphere was festive in a conference room of Schmitz Hall one recent afternoon as four UW staffers filled gift bags with small toys and decorated them with brightly colored tissue paper and ribbon.
It looked like the moments before a birthday party, when the guests — small children all, awaiting toys and fun — are just about to arrive. And the bags were indeed full of birthday gifts, but for children these generous staff members have never met, and will never meet.
It was a work meeting of Cheerful Givers volunteers, a group led locally by Briana Keller, a counselor in the Center for Career Services. Curling ribbon and wrapping up gift packages with her this afternoon were Heather Hopper and Michele Meola, psychologists, and Teresa Harvey, an office assistant lead, all from the Counseling Center, where Keller used to work.
“Cheerful Givers,” Keller explains, “is an organization that works to provide birthday bags for parents in less-fortunate families, so that they have something to give children on their birthday.”
She said the group’s founder, Robin Maynard, who started it up in Minnesota in 1993, realized that many parents with limited money might not even tell children of their birthdays if they could not afford to buy them presents to celebrate the occasion. The sadness of this struck Keller when she read about the program a couple of years back in People magazine.
The organization just seemed to match Keller’s celebratory nature. “I like celebrations,” she says. “I believe in celebrating other people’s birthdays and giving cards and presents. … And I also like to create gift bags, and when I read about this it seemed like a good melding of my interests.”
She contacted the organization and asked if there were any Northwest groups, and learned that it was all based in Minnesota. When she e-mailed to follow up a couple of months later, the group was ready to allow her to expand westward.
All of which ended up making Keller the Puget Sound area coordinator for Cheerful Givers, a volunteer position. Since beginning in November of 2005 she has now expanded to oversee three teams, one from the Center for Career Services, one from the Counseling Center, where Keller used to work, and one with friends in Redmond. Since starting, she says, she and her teams have donated 480 gift bags to various local agencies.
Each team meets every three months for the bag filling and decorating sessions, which they call Blitzes. Blitzes are therefore a monthly event for Keller, who attends all the meetings.
Keller says she talks with social service agencies to find families for whom the gift bags might be a help. The bags four staffers were filling on this day in a Schmitz Hall conference room were sent to Hope Link, in Bellevue.
Keller and her fellow volunteers don’t much mind that they’re never there to see the looks on the children’s faces who open their bags. “One of the great things about it is that we try to be completely invisible to the kids,” Keller says. “We want the kids to think the gifts are coming from their family.”
Her colleague Meola adds, “It’s almost a gift to the parents as much as it a gift to the child.”
And so the four of them walked around the conference room table in a short, birthday-bag assembly line, adding trinkets from various piles on the table — crayons, balloons, yoyos, soap for blowing bubbles, rulers, flashlights and jump ropes all went into the packages, which were completed with curled ribbons in bright shades.
Keller’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Minnesota home base of Cheerful Givers. Karen Kitchel, the group’s current president, said, ” Briana is very passionate about Cheerful Givers and we so much appreciate her leadership and support in really helping to spread the word of Cheerful Givers across the country.”
As for Keller herself, the praise is just an extra; the real joy comes from knowing she has helped brighten a child’s birthday.
“It makes me smile when I think about a kid’s face lighting up when they get a birthday gift,” she says.