published Sunday, August 18th, 2013

Kennedy: Gift giving with meaning for children's birthdays

Ashley-Rose Lynn, 13, has an idea worth sharing.

Back in April, the Girls Preparatory School student decided to add a wrinkle to her birthday celebration.

Class president, she invited all the seventh-grade girls at GPS to her party. Teachers knew something odd was going on when the girls arrived at school one day schlepping big bags of pet food -- Meow Mix, Whiskas, Dog Chow.

Actually, the root of this story goes back about 10 years. When she was tiny, Ashley-Rose pined for a kitten. One day a big gray "boy cat" showed up at her house and soon a litter of kittens appeared in the garage.

"Oh, he's not a 'him,'" Ashley-Rose remembers thinking.

A few years went by and another litter of kittens materialized in the family's attic. One got caught in the rafters and could be heard squealing for help behind a wall.

"We cut a hole in the dry wall," says Ashley-Rose, and out popped a kitten -- Pumpkin.

Now, Pumpkin is part of a brood of Lynn-family cats that includes Hemingway, Cappuccino, Twinkle Toes and Tiger Lilly.

Fast-forward to April of this year. Ashley-Rose decided to convert her passion for pets into a birthday-party theme. She asked all her classmates to bring pet food to be donated to the Humane Educational Society of Chattanooga. She ended up delivering more than 200 pounds of dry and many cans of wet food to the society facility in Highland Park, where it was used to feed needy animals.

Ashley-Rose's story got me thinking about the wastefulness of most suburban birthday parties. At the Kennedy house, for example, birthdays are mere odes to plastic. Typically, the opening of gifts involves exchanging $15 Walmart items -- Nerf guns, Lego sets -- that are cherished and adored for approximately six minutes each.

As kids get older they begin swapping $20 bills at birthday parties, a cash vortex.

This is no way to live.

If your child has a birthday on the horizon, why not use the occasion for good? Pay it forward like Ashley-Rose.

There are endless worthy charities your child could choose; here are a few thoughts:

• School libraries. Library budgets are notoriously thin these days, so why not encourage party participants to bring a book to donate to your child's school? If you're industrious, you might even call the library in advance to get a list of their needs. If they've got 15 copies of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," there's no need to pile on.

• Angel Tree. An estimated 1.7 million American children have at least one parent in prison. Prison Fellowship is a Christian ministry that helps prisoners and their families. The ministry's Angel Tree project provides holiday gifts to kids "on behalf" of their incarcerated parents. Donations can be sent to Prison Fellowship, P.O. Box 155o, Merrifield, VA, 22116-1550.

• Canines for Disabled Kids. Established in 1998, the charity provides assistance dogs to children who are autistic or who have hearing or physical disabilities. Mail contributions to Canines for Disabled Kids, 255 Park Ave. Suite 601, Worcester, MA 01609.

• Locks of Love. It's a big commitment, but there is no more personal gift than donating locks of hair to a child who has suffered hair loss due to medical conditions. The charity says it has helped more than 2,000 children spread across all 50 states. Visit the group's website at www.locksoflove.org for more information.

• Kaboom! Many suburban kids have access to safe, community-supported playgrounds. But there are many urban and small-town neighborhoods with no such luxury. Kaboom! is a nonprofit agency that has built 546 playgrounds in cities and towns across the country where funds for such things were unavailable. The Kaboom! website at http://kaboom.org has all the information you'll need to turn a birthday party into a charity event for needy kids.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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