When Schinnell Leake was growing up, she said, she always had a special appreciation for everything her single mother did for her, especially when Leake’s birthday approached each year.
Inspired by her late mother’s dedication to celebrating and acknowledging her on her birthday, Leake created Extra-Ordinary Birthdays five years ago. The organization hosts personalized birthday parties for homeless children in the Washington region who otherwise might not be able to celebrate.
For her efforts, Leake, a College Park resident, was recently named one of 10 L’Oreal Paris 2015 Women of Worth, a competition that recognizes women making a difference in their communities. She received a $10,000 award for her charity from the organization.
“Growing up, we were always celebrated with the biggest joy on our birthday,” said Leake, 56. “Every child should have that experience with their parents.”
Leake said she founded the organization — which aids children ages 1 to 18 — after noticing the effect birthday parties had on her own children. She had been involved with other projects aiding homeless youth and noticed they didn’t take children’s birthdays into consideration.
Over the past two years, Leake has thrown more than 200 birthday parties, and her organization has partnered with six homeless shelters in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Each birthday party is themed and based on a child’s response to a questionnaire. Leake and other volunteers create a schedule of games and activities for each party, provide healthy food and desserts and purchase a gift for a parent to give to his or her child at the end of the party, she said. Each child also receives a photo album and has the opportunity to dress up based on the party’s theme.
“I like to think we give them a sense of dignity and love they don’t get a lot of the time,” Leake said.
The University of Maryland’s Connect with the Community club chapter helped create goodie bags for a party at Stamp Student Union on Feb. 26, Leake said.
Junior finance major Bria Sladden, who has helped organize six parties this year, said she hopes more students on the campus will get involved with the organization after realizing the impact it has on the local community.
“You can see how much it means to each child and the parents that are there,” Sladden said. “Walking across campus, you don’t know anybody’s story by looking at them. The same goes for homeless kids living otherwise typical lives.”
During the parties, other kids in the shelters have the opportunity to join volunteers and participate, Leake said.
“These are invaluable experiences because these kids are at a point in their lives where they are dealing with the difficulty of not having a true home,” said Amanda Reed, a volunteer who has been involved with organizing 16 parties. “It’s very easy when in an unfortunate situation to get distracted by the disappointment. The parties remind kids and volunteers birthdays are always worth celebrating.”
Janet Odubeko, a volunteer who has helped organize 30 parties, said the personalized nature of each party makes Extra-Ordinary Birthdays distinct.
“[Leake] will go out of her way to find each child’s favorite toy, color or cartoon,” Odubeko said. “These are not just broad parties across the board. The parties create milestones in each child’s life so they know they could become something.”
The organization is preparing to expand into Virginia so it covers the entire Washington metropolitan area, Leake said.
“It’s important to hold on to this model we have to do something no other organization is doing,” she said. “I put myself in the shoes of a parent. These things we do during parties are all things parents would do, but at this point might not have the resources to do.”