Birthday Bags for Needy Kids

American Artisans, Hometown Heroes, People
on October 23, 2005

In September 1993, Robin Maynard found herself staring at an empty shelf while visiting a friend who ran Trinity Mission, a food bank in St. Paul, Minn. Maynard’s friend explained that the shelf was meant to stock ingredients for parents to make their children birthday cakes. But more often than not, the shelf held only cans of vegetables or boxes of cereal.

“Can you imagine, it’s your own special day, a day that’s just all yours, and your parent says, ‘Here’s some Fruit Loops,’” says Maynard, 38, of Zimmerman, Minn. (pop. 2,851).

So she went home that day and told her husband, Kevin, 49, her plan—to buy a dozen bags, fill them with treats and deliver them to the mission. Maynard dropped off the stuffed “birthday bags” one evening, and by 9 o’clock the next morning, she received a call telling her that all of them had been picked up by needy families.

“They said one mother cried when she saw the birthday bag,” Maynard says. “She told the staff she’d changed buses three times to get to the food shelf and had prayed she’d find something she could give as a gift to her child.”

From September 1993 to August 1994, the couple bought 1,000 bags and filled them with things like crayons, coloring books and toys. Despite their good intentions, the Maynards realized that they were running out of money and could no longer buy all the gifts themselves. In response, Robin started a non-profit organization called Cheerful Givers.

Today, large corporations donate bags and items such as stuffed animals, coloring books, balls, puzzles, whistles and candy. The organization is aided throughout Minnesota by more than 1,000 volunteers, who buy items themselves, fill the bags and deliver them to food banks and homeless shelters in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“The birthday bags of goodies allow us to reach out to children with more than food,” says Ralph Olsen Jr., senior pastor at the King of Kings Lutheran Church Food Shelf in Woodbury, Minn. (pop. 46,463). The bags are a sign of love and hope to children who would not otherwise have such gifts.”

In 2003, Maynard handed over the day-to-day operations of Cheerful Givers to Karen Kitchel, who now runs the organization from her home in Eagan, Minn. (pop. 63,557).

“There are about 110,000 children living in poverty in Minnesota, and that number’s rising,” says Kitchel, 55, the organization’s only paid employee. “I think most charities concentrate on giving children gifts at Christmas, but no one seems to focus on birthdays. We always try to include a lasting item like a stuffed toy in the bags because for many of these children it’s the first thing they’ve ever owned.”

Kitchel lauds Maynard for finding a way to spread happiness on a child’s special day. “The impact Robin has made is incredible. She’s a person with a big heart.”

Maynard, who works in the communications department at Land O’Lakes Inc. in Arden Hills, Minn. (pop. 9,652), now serves as Cheerful Givers’ chairman of the board and volunteers her time by attending events, handling public relations and acting as the organization’s spokeswoman.

As of June 2005, Cheerful Givers has provided 110,000 birthday bags to children in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And just as Maynard has always done, each bag is given anonymously.

“It’s important that the children think their parents are the ones giving them the gift,” Maynard says. “Many work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, so they’re the real heroes, not us.”

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