Riley Harris' birthday party will continue long after tonight.
Because the 13-year-old North Hixson resident asked guests at her birthday party to bring, instead of presents, cash donations for the youth literacy and leadership program at the faith-based Bethlehem Community Center in Alton Park, those gifts will keep on giving.
"I like how they focused on literacy," Riley says. "It's something that sticks with kids their whole entire lives. It can have a major impact."
The Loftis Middle School eighth-grade student has been reading since she was 4, according to her mother, Laura, and thought the Beth's literacy program was an ideal place to direct donations.
This birthday bash -- a masquerade ball at Chester Frost Park -- will actually be Riley's third in which she has asked those who wanted to bring a gift to make a donation instead.
The first year, when she turned 8, she asked in lieu of presents that donations at the Halloween-themed party be made to McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center. Some $300 was raised.
"The proof " of how an 8-year-old with no birthday presents for herself would react, says mother Laura Harris, remembering the anxious moments, "was when she comes home with nothing but leftovers."
Riley, now president of the school's Student Council and vice president of its Beta Club, returned with a card signed by everybody in attendance to give to McKamey and a shoebox full of cards and donations.
"She read the cards, she counted the money," her mother says. "She was as happy as if she'd had a present from everybody there. We were worried, but she's enjoyed doing it since."
Riley says now that the material gifts might have been things she didn't want or really need.
"I figured that giving [money] to charity would be more worthwhile," she says. "It's a very, very good feeling -- to know you made some kind of difference."
At 10, Riley marked her birthday with a rock'n'roll/karaoke theme and suggested any donations be made to Toys for Tots, an organization that each year collects new, unwrapped toys during October, November and December and distributes them as Christmas gifts to less-fortunate children in the community.
"That was a lot of fun, too," says Laura Harris.
Riley, whose actual birthday is Oct. 27, spent part of the summer researching organizations where this year's birthday donations could go, her mother says. Then, when her mother was chatting with her employer's United Way of Greater Chattanooga representative, the Beth was mentioned. She, in turn, suggested it to Riley.
"She saw how involved they were in literacy," Laura Harris says, "and she contacted them. She wanted to do something local."
Ted Bullock, executive director of the Beth, says it's wonderful to have someone so young be so altruistic.
"It is so great to see our young people care about others so much instead of thinking about themselves," he says.
The organization fits well with Riley's love of reading, her mother says. At 4, she says, "she was begging to learn."
Riley says reading can have far-reaching implications -- throughout school and even into the job world.
"It helps to extend your mind," she says, "to help you grow and understand."
Tonight's party, at which 50 to 75 people -- mostly school friends -- are expected, guests are requested to come in dressy or casual attire or in costume, but to wear a mask. Prizes will be awarded for the best mask.
It stands to reason a good time will be had by all, including those who will benefit down the road at the Beth.
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...