Birthday celebrations that mean more than just cake

I recently celebrated my birthday.

Although it wasn’t a milestone year, I still celebrated with cake and flowers with my family -- a far cry from the fanfare and festivities I enjoyed, even demanded, as a child, when our birthdays were all-day and sometimes all-week celebrations, with themed parties, favors, special food, and gifts.

I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. Even so, as a kid, birthdays were a big deal -- celebrations were a common, expected occurrence. It never would have occurred to me at the time that there are millions of children in the world whose birthdays come and go just like any other day.

They don’t have a party. They don’t get gifts. They don’t eat special food. Most have never heard of or been to a birthday party, much less had one of their own.

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Party time

Not long ago, I was able to go to the best birthday party in my life. The party was in the mountains of El Salvador -- about a 30-minute drive from the nearest city, up a winding, dusty, and bumpy dirt road.

The sun was out, its rays beating mercilessly down on the dry earth. Normally, when the sun shines this strong in eastern El Salvador, most people -- kids and adults alike -- head for the shade. Not this day.

On this day, everyone was out. Children, dressed in their finest, accompanied by their parents, followed their ears and the music to the community soccer field.

The closer we got to the soccer field, the more excitement filled the air. As the children crossed the field, they were welcomed as royalty, with paper crowns. They were the guests of honor. This was their party.

After the children put on their crowns, some grabbed inflated balloons and streamers to play on the sun-scorched grass. Others made their way to the shade of a small shelter at the end of the field, which was also covered with streamers and balloons.

The excitement and anticipation of activities to come was palpable.

Once the majority of the children arrived and were ready with their crowns, the emcee called them to the small shelter. The 150 children and their parents overflowed the small splotch of shade and spilled out beyond the limits of the roof into the sun.

For many kids in the developing world, birthdays come without festivities like this one in El Salvador, where these girls enjoy birthday cake. (Photo: Heidi Isaza/World Vision)

Let the games begin

As the children and their parents stood for the national anthem, a giant chicken -- the mascot for the most popular restaurant in El Salvador, El Pollo Campero -- sneaked up to help lead the party. Music blasted, kids and parents danced, and smiles radiated stronger than the sun’s rays.

After a few minutes of dancing, the emcee started the games. Small children and older ones alike took turns participating in activities from tongue-twisters and modeling contests to pop questions answered in front of the crowd.

Marisol Garcia Cruz came to the birthday party with two of her three children: Geovany, 7, and Maryory del Carmen, 6. She was amazed to see them participating in the activities and competing for candy in front of such a sizable crowd.

“[As a mom], I’m happy,” she says. “I’m proud of them. I can see that they are not shy.”

Special food for special kids on their special day

Nearing the end of the activities, a rambunctious round of "Happy Birthday" echoed throughout the area. Each child received fried chicken, french fries, and soda from the famous El Pollo Campero restaurant, as well as a slice of birthday cake.

For some children, these experiences were a first. “The kids say, ‘I’ve never had a birthday party. I have never eaten cake,’” says Marcela Robles, the sponsorship facilitator for this community.

“Before World Vision was here…we didn’t have this opportunity,” says Maria Yolanda Urrutia, mother of two sponsored children. Birthdays come and go in their house without a lot of pomp and circumstance -- not because they wouldn’t love to give their children a party, but because they can’t afford it.

“We don’t make a cake,” she says. “We just have a normal meal.”

But today was different. Maria is happy that although she can’t provide her children with individual birthday parties, World Vision helps them feel loved and special through the group birthday celebrations.

“Today, everybody celebrated together,” she says. “It is really beautiful. They have broken piñatas, and shared a time of joy. It is really special.”

Her children actually liked the party so much that each of them brought home the remains of the broken piñatas.

Celebrating children around the world

Each year, World Vision celebrates the lives and accomplishments of the sponsored children through these birthday celebrations. On this particular day, there were dozens of similar parties happening in communities across eastern El Salvador.

And, at least for a few hours, the difficulty of living in poverty was overshadowed with the kind of joy every child should have the opportunity to experience.

How was your birthday celebrated as a child? If you have children, how do you celebrate theirs now? What do childhood birthday celebrations mean to you -- either from the perspective of your own children, or others whom you know? Share your thoughts and stories with us!

Sponsor a child whose birthday is today. You'll help deliver critical basics like nutritious food, clean water, medical care, education, safe shelter, and more. But beyond that, you will help a child in need to know that he or she is loved -- both by virtue of your support, and by the birthday celebrations that honor a special day.


    I don't really do much for my children's birthdays at this point, but now that they are getting older I want to start doing something nice. I've known people who spend hundreds of dollars on a party, and I tend to just handmake things and cook the food for it to save money. I don't understand the huge celebrations honestly. I used to have people my parents were close to come over and we'd have cake and that was fine for me. As I got older I started to envy my classmates having gymnastics parties and skating parties and more. My mom gave me a swimming birthday party one year but the kids didn't even bother talking to me and I just ended up swimming laps at that indoor pool. After that it was back to family cake parties again.

    I really loved seeing the photos and reading about how you celebrate people's birthdays. I had given a birthday party donation to my first sponsored child earlier in the year, but less than a month later I received a letter that she graduated the program (she turned 16), so I never got to hear how her birthday went. I was a little bummed out about that. I figured she may never have even had a birthday party ever while I had complained about not having a "good enough party" as a kid. I was spoiled and ungrateful.

    Thank you for what you do and for helping.

    Birthday celebrations SHOULD definitely mean more than just a cake, of a party, or whatever festivities.

    Looking at it from a christian (or whatever religion) point of view, it should first and foremost be seen from the point of view that one made it another year. More so when we consider the number of people who did not live to see another year since their last birthday.

    So while the partying and celebration is fine, I think it should be preceded by that gratitude, especially internal. And perhaps indeed, it can be argued that the partying and merriment is an expression of that gratitude.

    But I dare say that for many people, that is not the case.

    But in the case of innocent children, I guess it is a different ball game, especially given their innocence.

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