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Two busy New York City moms are making a difference in kids’ lives with their philanthropic organization, Birthday Buds.

“Children between the ages of 3 and 12, living in poverty, are matched with donor families who have a child with the same gender and birthday month. Donor families agree to provide their ‘Bud’ with three to five unwrapped gifts,” explains Birthday Buds co-founder and mother of four, Lara O’Shaughnessy. “In addition to toys, the donor is asked to include some essential gifts: for example, clothes, shoes, toiletries, school and art supplies.”

Donor families agree to a five-year commitment, or until their Bud passes his 12th birthday.

O’Shaughnessy said donors speak to the recipient child’s parents just before their birthday to get information on what the child likes, what sizes he wears, and essential needs: mostly warm clothes, boots, hats, and scarves in the winter; rain boots, sandals, and swimming gear in the spring and summer. They also find out what the child is really interested in (i.e. princesses, trucks, sports, music, art, Legos, Dora and Diego, etc.). Other essential requests often include socks, underpants, jackets, and backpacks.

Then recipient parents contact the donor parents and relay the information (and ask them to include wrapping paper, gift bags, or ribbons).

Some donor families order the gifts online and ship directly to their Bud, or the organization contacts the donating family a week before the birthday to arrange for a messenger service to come to the home and pick up the unwrapped packages, and deliver them to their Bud’s family for wrapping and giving.

How ‘Buds’ was born

Birthday Buds was founded in 2011 on a simple premise: how can we teach our children the importance of giving and at the same time, make birthdays meaningful?

“Birthday parties have become excessive,” said O’Shaughnessy, pointing out that children often have so many presents, they lose sight of the celebration.

Birthday Buds co-founder and mom, Grace Cowan, added, “A couple of years ago, my friend, Pauline, was preparing a birthday party for her son. She knew I volunteered with Room to Grow and asked if there was a way to donate some of her son’s gifts to a child in that program with an upcoming birthday.

“We were both guilty of excessive birthday parties for our kids, and felt that teaching our kids how to give would be the best gift we could give them!”

Cowan said she knew her friend, O’Shaughnessy, was always interested in ways to give back.

“So I contacted her and asked if she would be interested in doing this with more children. She and I crafted a business plan, and Birthday Buds was born.”

A perfect team

Room To Grow (www.roomtogrow.org) is a nonprofit serving the five boroughs. Enriching the lives of babies born into poverty, through their critical first three years of life, the organization provides ongoing parental, educational, and material support for families in need.

“Our kids come to us as graduates of the Room to Grow program at age 3, along with their siblings,” O’Shaughnessy said.

In working with Room To Grow, O’Shaughnessy said they realized that once many of the children age out of early childhood development support programs, the “essentials” can become scarce.

“By adding gifts that address a need, along with fun gifts, we supply the child with the basics we often take for granted,” she explains.

According to Birthday Buds co-founder and mom, Grace Cowan, “Many of the children in our program are living in difficult situations, but most are in some type of stable housing.”

In fact, 40 percent of Room to Grow families have an involved father. Approximately 37 percent of Birthday Buds’ clients live in the Bronx, while 25 percent live in Manhattan, 22 percent in Brooklyn, 11 percent in Queens, and five percent on Staten Island or outside the five boroughs. Two percent of recipient parents are under age 18, 38 percent are 18 to 24, 27 percent are 25 to 29, and 32 percent are over age 30.

Donor kids come from families of plenty, who wish to donate items to less fortunate kids on their birthdays. And this is where the giving starts and the lesson of giving back begins to flourish.

“We currently have over 250 kids in our program. And many kids that are not currently matched with a Bud, so our immediate goal is to find new matches and raise some additional funding for delivery services,” Cowan says, adding, “We’ve also started a ‘Buds Closet’ that we hope to fill with toys and essentials for kids, while they’re waiting to be matched.”

The founders

O’Shaughnessy, 40, moved from Chicago to Manhattan eight years ago. She juggles family life with her nonprofit work, and is an infant and child portrait photographer.

“Service work has always been important to me, and about two years ago, I began aching to do something in New York. At that time, Grace approached me with this beautiful story about giving, and we both realized that something big could come of it!”

The family lives on the Upper East Side and O’Shaughnessy admits that raising four children (Bohdan, 11; Lily, 8; Maeve, 6; and Liam, 4) in the city is no easy task, but feels that living near Central Park, “makes it much more palatable. I tell my kids: ‘Why do you need a backyard when you have Central Park?’ My husband still misses barbecuing.”

Cowan, 41, a concert promoter for most of her career, says she took about four years off to have and raise her girls, but has recently joined a boutique media collective, ShowCobra.

“It’s been great to be back to work, but it has been a new challenge to juggle being a wife, mom, running a nonprofit, and having a career. I’ve been reading a lot of books about balance!”

Moving to New York City from Charleston, S.C. four years ago, this Birthday Buds mom lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and daughters, Sadie, 5, and Evie, 2.

“We laugh at ourselves that we are the country folks who moved to the city. New York City is a big change from Charleston, and we certainly miss the weather! But the longer we live here, we’ve realized so many similarities. We appreciate our small village in the big city and have made amazing friends.”

Their very own Buds love to give back.

“Living in New York, I wanted to educate my four children that there are boys and girls living in our same city that don’t have lavish birthdays, may not get presents, and may not even have the essentials they need that my children take for granted,” says O’Shaughnessy.

By matching each of her kids with a Birthday Bud, she says they’re learning firsthand what gift giving is.

“They love picking out the toys, imagining what the child would like, and know that the essentials we provide will make a difference in their Bud’s life.”

Cowan agrees, adding, “I think teaching your kids empathy is as important as feeding them well. My kids are still young, so we try to teach them about loving, being kind to others, putting themselves in someone else’s place, and the importance of sharing what you have.”

Since Birthday Buds has several kids who are not currently matched with donors, the moms said their own kids have been Buds to several additional children over the last year.

“Throughout the year we keep a ‘birthday list’ for both girls,” says Cowan. “Whenever they ask for a toy or something they really want, we add it to their list. We’ve created lists for each of their Buds, as well, so if they see something they think their Bud will like, we add it to their list.”

The moms have started throwing an annual cocktail party fund-raiser to raise money for gifts for unmatched kids.

And they’ve just added 100-plus recipient children to their program this year, as they continue to partner with Room to Grow, so they need more Birthday Buds donors. They have also expanded their donor pool to include people who wish to be donors but don’t have kids, and donors who live outside of New York City.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to partner with other organizations that serve the New York City community. And in five years, we would love to see Birthday Buds expand to other cities.”

The moms say it’s all about giving.

“Birthday Buds wants to educate our children to grow up understanding the importance of giving. The act of giving to those less fortunate will instill a strong sense of community in our children, while providing aid to those in need.

“We couldn’t imagine not being able to provide our children with fun things, let alone essentials. Birthday Buds is a great way to ensure that we all have the ability to do that, and teach our children a very important lesson at the same time.”

For more information on how to become a donor, visit www.birthdaybud.org.

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and parent who loves New York City. She writes for several community newspapers, a well-known publishing company, the AngiesList website, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post.

Updated 4:45 pm, July 9, 2018
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