Birthday parties bring joy to homeless children

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

In reach: A little girl in a party hat reaches for a giant orange balloon held by Guilderland resident Fazana Ismail.

GUILDERLAND — This week marks the fourth anniversary of Jazzy Sun Birthdays — one woman’s way of making homeless children feel special.

“We want to make these children feel like regular kids for the day — make them feel like kings and queens,” said Fazana Ismail.

Ismail used to work in New York City as a program officer for a foundation that gave out grant money to alleviate poverty. “I went on site visits, to soup kitchens and food pantries,” she said.

One day, when she visited a soup kitchen that serviced families, she recalled, “The director said, on children’s birthdays, the staff would sing and it made the children feel so special. I thought, that must be hard.”

That was 10 years ago, but the thought stayed with Ismail.

She went on to have her own child — she now has two, ages 5 and 10 — and saw the joy of a birthday party through her daughter’s eyes. “We were on a tight budget but did it with a lot of love,” Ismail recalled. “She felt like the star of the day.”

Ismail moved to Guilderland six years ago and in 2011 “took a leap” to start hosting parties for children who otherwise might not have them. “I wanted to give back,” she said.

She has since hosted parties for about 200 children. The parties take place at four centers — St. Catherine’s Center for Children in Albany, the City Mission in Schenectady, the Schuyler Inn in Menands, and St. Paul’s Center in Rensselaer.

On the third Saturday of each month, any child who has had a birthday that month is celebrated. Ismail’s only payment for her labors is the thanks she gets from the children, which she says is more than enough.

“Kids say things like, ‘This is the best birthday ever,’” Ismail reported.

She recalled a boy, a wrestling fan, who was turning 13, and tickets had been secured for him to see a wrestling event at the Times Union Center in Albany. When he opened his gift, Ismail said, “He was doing fist pumps. He was elated.”

Ismail works with a large network of volunteer supporters. This past Saturday, staff from Westmere Elementary School helped out.

“We are blessed with over 300 volunteers,” said Ismail. “They come on site, or bake cakes, or bring gifts.”

 

A pat on the back: Fazana Ismail, from Guilderland, right, helps a party-goer get a temporary tattoo during a birthday party at a local shelter on Saturday morning. The Enterprise — Michael Koff

 

Monetary contributions are helpful, too, she said. Ismail hasn’t had the time to incorporate as a not-for-profit for tax-deductible contributions but people can donate through St. Catherine’s, which has devoted a revenue stream to her parties, and get tax deductions that way.

Ismail is busy as the working mother of two young children. She named Jazzy Sun Birthdays after her children’s nicknames — Jazzy and Sun. Ismail works as a research scientist at the State University of New York Research Foundation.

“Life can get pretty busy,” she said. “To take this to the next level, I need people interested in helping me gain non-profit status or becoming a shelter coordinator.” Anyone who wants to help may contact Ismail through her Facebook page, Jazzy Sun Birthdays.

“I’m committed to these kids, when I see how much joy it brings to them and their families,” she said.

The program has also helped the volunteers, like Scout troops and church groups. “Parents say it’s hard to explain the concept of poverty to their children,” said Ismail. “A birthday is something all kids can relate to.”

She said of poverty, “It becomes a lot more real when they help with these parties. Parents are often nervous, not sure they want their children to play with homeless children.”

But then they come to the party, she said, and both parents and children realize, “These kids are just like them.”

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