A birthday is an important time in a child’s life, and Cheerful Givers’ creator Robin Zelaya believes every child deserves a gift to celebrate his or her special day. So she created the “nonprofit charity that provides birthday gifts to families who can’t afford to give their kids gifts for their birthdays,” Zelaya explains. “We want to help families to celebrate and recognize their children. Many of the people we serve through agencies, food shelves, homeless shelters, they’re in difficult times so they don’t really have extra money for the extras.”
Zelaya began her smile-inducing organization in September 1993 after deciding she wanted to do more than just give checks to charities every month. She visited a food shelf in St. Paul and learned parents who can’t afford birthday gifts only receive a box of cake for their child’s birthday—and sometimes that’s not even an option. “[The director] took me over to the shelf and there wasn’t any there. And I was, like, ‘Now what do you do?’ and she said, ‘Well, what we have to do is give them a box of their child’s favorite cereal or canned food item,’” Zelaya says. “And I heard angels sing. And I thought, ‘I found it!’ My family always had good birthdays, and we always felt so loved and celebrated. And I said, ‘I’ll be back.’ That was a Tuesday night in September 1993, and then on that Sunday, I came back with 12 birthday bags.” By the following March she founded Cheerful Givers.
Zelaya’s birthday bags contain many items, including back-to-school essentials, stuffed animals, crayons, coloring books, trucks, dolls and books. “We always try to have a book, and something that lasts,” Zelaya says, “like a really nice stuffed animal or Barbie doll; one or two bigger items, and then some medium and some small.” Cheerful Givers gives out about 25,000 gift bags per year, but in past years has gone over 100,000. All totaled, they’ve made birthdays brighter for more than a million kids.
Volunteers and an executive director run the nonprofit, and Zelaya commends the community of White Bear Lake for being so kind. “I rented this place in the White Bear Mall so we can actually bring the public in and let them see what we’re doing, and they can make the bags themselves,” Zelaya says. “It’s been pretty good. White Bear is such a beautiful community, and everyone has been so helpful. We have the door open and people walk down the hall and say, ‘What’s this?’ and I tell them and people say, ‘Here’s $10. Give a kid a birthday for us.’”
Zelaya gives the opportunity for more fortunate adults and children to give back, as well. “If their children or grandchildren are having a birthday, they invite all their friends and family [to a gift bag-making party],” Zelaya says. “We’re thinking $10 a person and they schedule it for two hours, and we have the products out so they can make gift bags.” By the end, attendees have assembled 50 birthday bags.
Zelaya says her favorite part about Cheerful Givers is giving back, even if she never gets to see the children’s reactions. “At the end of the night after not ever seeing the kids—over a million kids—when I close my eyes and I think about it, I can see all these smiles,” Zelaya says. “I just know that so many kids have been celebrated because all the help that we’ve received, and because I wanted to do something that really made a difference.”