STORY BY ELISABETH ALTAMIRANO-SMITH
Foster care families around the United States are “home” for a staggering 443,000 children each year.
Children spend an average of two years within the foster care system, while some may wait five years or longer. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the average age of a child upon entering foster care is 8 years old. For many foster families that provide housing to several children, extra provision such as birthday parties are not practical, and many children go without celebrating their own birthday in a special way. To combat this, Sarah Beth Huntley, age 17 of Clanton, organizes and operates Operation Birthday Wish, which gives every foster child in Chilton County a gift on their birthday.
In 2010, Sarah Beth’s older sister, Ada Ruth founded OBW after a conversation about her mother’s own experiences while in foster care as a child.
“While being in the system, there were some birthdays that my mother did without a birthday gift,” said Sarah Beth. “Operation Birthday Wish was started to ensure that every child is celebrated on their birthday, regardless of circumstance.”
Upon Ada Ruth’s high school graduation, Sarah Beth took up the helm of Operation Birthday Wish and has been running the program with the help of the Student Government Association and FOCUS at Chilton County High School.
Each month, the Department of Human Resources gives Sarah Beth a list of birthdates and birthday wishes. DHR social workers ask the foster children what gifts they might like to have. The list also includes their age, race and gender. With that information in hand, Sarah Beth works to find commercial and individual donors within the community to sponsor the cost of the gift and gift wrap.
“We ask sponsors to at least spend $30 so that the gift can be something nice that the child really wants,” said Sarah Beth. “We want this gift to look nice, so the child will know that an effort has been made because they are special.”
Sponsors can also purchase gift cards and donate them to the organization.
“When a sponsor donates a gift card, I or someone from the SGA will shop for whatever is on the birthday list and use the card to purchase it,” said Sarah Beth.
Sarah Beth recruits additional volunteers to pick up and deliver the gifts to DHR, where the social worker then takes the gifts to the children.
Sarah Beth has used her platform as 2020’s Distinguished Young Woman of Chilton County to promote Operation Birthday Wish. Distinguished Young Women is part of a national scholarship program that promotes and rewards scholarship, leadership and talent in young women. The deadline to register for the 2021 Distinguished Young Woman of Chilton County program is June 1, 2020. Registration can be completed at www.distinguishedyw.org See the Distinguished Young
Women of Chilton County Facebook page for details. Huntley has also presented OBW at the State of Alabama FOCUS Rally in 2017 and the Clanton Kiwanis Club. She has created a partnership with Books-A-Million to not only sponsor a gift, but donate a book as well.
Sarah Beth recently was accepted to multiple universities and has chosen to attend Vanderbilt. Even through great distance, she has structured OBW so that it will remain self-sufficient during her absence. Donors can visit OBW’s online Amazon account.
“The gift items listed on the Amazon account are from foster children,” Sarah Beth said. “Having this account will make it easier for those that want to shop from home and have it delivered.”
However, Sarah Beth said that the partnership with the SGA and FOCUS are still vital to the existence of OBW.
“In the future, donors may purchase presents and then leave it for us at Chilton County High School by the specified deadline,” said Huntley. “The student groups will then meet to wrap the presents, and take them to DHR for drop off.”
For more information about Operation Birthday Wish, visitwww.operationbirthdaywish.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.