Believing in Joy as a Fundamental Right, She Throws Birthday Parties for Children in Need

Daily Point of Light # 6410 Dec 7, 2018
Julia Warren throws a birthday party for two students with her nonprofit celebrate! RVA.

What do you do when a second grader tells you he doesn’t know his birthday? Or when that same little boy says he doesn’t even know what a birthday is?

Julia Warren was only 16-years-old when she had this heartbreaking conversation as a volunteer at a Title I elementary school in Richmond, Virginia. After she explained to the student, a little boy named Charles, what a birthday was, all he could muster for an answer was, “I think I was born when it was cold.”

“I couldn’t grasp how a child couldn’t know that,” Julia said. Coming from a family where birthdays were always a special event to be celebrated, she didn’t know what to do – but she knew she had to do something.

She went to the school’s principal to tell her what happened and ask for the school to do something for the child’s birthday. “When we have time, we’ll give them a pencil,” the school responded. She was shocked.

Six years later, now 22 years old, Julia is the executive director of celebrate! RVA, the nonprofit she founded to make sure disadvantaged children in Richmond are given a birthday party that makes them feel happy and special, no matter their circumstances.

Thanks to celebrate! RVA, more than 2,000 birthdays have been celebrated – some at Oak Grove Bellemeade Elementary, where her dream began, and some at other agencies in her community. From homeless shelters to children the pediatric oncology unit, celebrate! RVA has grown its mission to bring joy to children who need it most. 

Halfway through her undergraduate double-major in business and economics at Randolph-Macon College, Julia met with a financial planner who could clearly see her passion for bringing love and joy to underserved children. She posed a critical question, “How important is it to you to finish college in four years?” Julia was already struggling to be a full-time student, an executive director and work multiple part-time jobs. Then she made a decision to put school on hold so she could focus on growing the impact of celebrate! RVA.

Julia has resumed her collegiate studies, this time at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she’ll double major in nonprofit management and business, and double minor in social work and child psychology.

Despite these transitions, Julia laughs at the concept of being an overachiever. She said wasn’t at all motivated in high school; she made good grades, but wasn’t really passionate about anything until that life – changing interaction with Charles.

After navigating through a difficult season of life, Julia sought help from a therapist. It was through therapy that she discovered that she’d been struggling with depression and anxiety, and had never been able to put a name to it until then. Behind those birthday parties, there was a broken person.

Having struggled with similar feelings, Julia recognizes that living in poverty can cause depression in children and she knows just how much they need joy and love. Providing that to them through birthday parties is all the motivation she needs.

A celebrate! RVA child blows out his birthday candle and makes a wish.

“It’s a great privilege to work with these kids,” said Julia. “They have every reason to be angry, but to see them smile or blow out a candle is a great privilege. I get so much joy from doing it.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant challenges. Earning the trust of the children she helps is tough until they realize she’s there for them in the long haul. No obstacle can stop Julia from her mission to bring as many birthday parties to as many children in need as possible. Celebrate! RVA is expanding across the city. The organization has recently made a commitment to a physical space, where children can experience joy and love each day through a specialized curriculum that has a focus on trauma-informed care.

“Our children were having trouble regulating joy and happiness,” said Julia. “Their brains were conditioned for trauma, so much so that they literally rejected the possibility of love. The celebrate! RVA curriculum finds ways to introduce that concept in developmentally, socially and culturally appropriate ways.”

Julia has big dreams for the organization, but also for children across the country. She continues to work towards making joy, smiles and laughter not a privilege, but a fundamental right for all.

For Julia, it comes down to one simple thing: “I get to tell a child they matter.”

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Julia? Visit All For Good for local volunteer opportunities.

Madi Donham