Birthdays have always been a big deal in Sonika Menon’s family. In 2017, the Naperville, Illinois, teen started thinking about kids who might not get the same type of recognition—or even a celebration at all. Menon responded by recruiting her brother and cousins and creating The Birthday Giving Program, a nonprofit with the mission of bringing birthday cheer to children in need.
“My idea was, we start with these big boxes. We include books, a cake, stuffed animals, balloons, plates, and customize it according to the age of the child,” Menon told the Naperville Sun in 2018. To find kids who might benefit, Menon began cold-calling local nonprofit groups. The response was terrific: Menon is now partnered with organizations that she checks in with every month to learn the names and ages of clients with birthdays coming up. She’s delivered boxes to facilities throughout the northwestern Chicago suburbs.
And since its inception, The Birthday Giving Program has expanded its reach. With the help of additional volunteers, the program now provides welcome boxes for kids entering homeless shelters, as well as birthday boxes for mentally and/or physically challenged adults, and the elderly. Menon’s cousin, Rinna Talwar, heads up the division of the charity dedicated to seniors. As Talwar said, “[Some seniors] don’t have a lot of family, and they don’t get a lot of visitors.”
The program’s success is grounded in the sense of connection it creates. When possible, Talwar and Menon join in the celebrations when they deliver the boxes. Menon has baked some of the cakes herself, and the group has received support from the community, with businesses such as the Republic Bank’s Naperville branch hosting a box-packing event and preparing dozens of boxes for distribution. Ultimately, the cousins hope their efforts will spark something in their peers. As Menon said, “Our main goal is to inspire other young individuals to step up and make a difference.”
Thumbnail credit: Screen shot from “Sonika Menon talks about The Birthday Giving Program” via WGN News on YouTube.
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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