With one "And the crowd went, 'Shhhh …,'" Megan "Megs" Yunn quiets 16 kids running around a courtyard in the back of a large house in the East End. It's the last summery day of October, and their moms sit watching on a low courtyard wall.
Yunn has organized a birthday party for two of the kids, 6 and 8, but the whole crowd is excited. This is Beverly's Birthdays' monthly visit to Sojourner House MOMS, a program that provides housing and support for single women (and their dependent kids) who are homeless and recovering from other issues. (MOMS stands for "Motivation Opportunities Mentoring Spirituality.") Yunn started Beverly's Birthdays
in February for kids who haven't always been able to have birthday parties.
"As you can see, this is the Spider Man birthday," Yunn tells them. Apart from the Spidey banner, the rest of the waiting activities take some explaining. The table with giant bags of popcorn and clear plastic gloves will let the kids make tentacles representing Spider Man's enemy Doctor Octopus -- or just a cool headpiece or mask. Fifty-two rolls of white toilet paper in another corner are about to become Spider Man webs for a wrapping race. A third table holds the beginnings of spider hats: black plastic plates with the centers cut out and pipe-cleaner legs already zigzagging from their sides awaiting stapled-on spider heads, colored tentacles and eyes.
The pizzas and drinks are gone in a few minutes, and the kids dive into the activities. The first group racing to wrap each other in toilet paper from the bottom up have reached knee level.
"They're neck and neck," says Josh Whiteside, one of six volunteers helping Yunn, along with Yunn's husband Mike.
"Don't you mean leg and leg?" shouts one of the wrappers.
Half an hour into the party, the spider hats are almost gone, moms are wrapping kids, and web-draped youngsters are staggering around like mummies. There is popcorn and toilet paper everywhere.
"My son's was the pirates birthday," one mom says of another themed Beverly's Birthday earlier this year. She has three kids here. "All of them were nice, but the pirates one was outstanding. It's just something that really inspires the kids, and everybody gets a chance to celebrate every month."
Yunn, 27, of North Huntingdon, was working last year as director of volunteer programs at Washington and Jefferson College, matching students to volunteer programs, when she volunteered herself for one after-school group. Helping a 12-year-old girl named Beverly complete her homework, Yunn asked her to complete a sentence using the phrase "accustomed to." Yunn offered an example: "At a birthday party, people are accustomed to eating what?"
To which Beverly replied, "I have never had a birthday party or a birthday cake."
"When she said that, my heart broke," Yunn recalls. "When I got home, I could not shake that conversation. I told my husband, there should be some sort of organization providing at-risk children with birthday celebrations.
"Most of these kids are in mainstream schools," she notes of the kids she serves now. "They're in class with their peers, who are saying, 'Hey, here's my invitation to my soccer party.' And here's this
kid thinking, 'Hey, my birthday is next week. I'm not handing out invitations.'"
In August, 2011, the newly created Beverly's Birthdays nonprofit got its first funding of $2,500 from the national "BE BIG in Your Community Contest" -- one of 10 winners selected out of 1,000 entries -- "and it was off and running," Yunn says.
Since February 2012, Yunn has held group birthdays for the kids at Sojourner House MOMS. There is always a theme, chosen by the birthday kids. For the first party, the birthday girls chose a princess/diva theme: the girls got their make up and nails done and received princess wands and a dance party and photo shoot with feather boas. At the superhero party, the birthday kids got capes and everyone at the party made masks and tested their superhero strengths during games. Yunn says the pirates theme was a particular hit, with pirate hats, temporary tattoos, eye patches and black balloons standing in for cannonballs.
"We always do some sort of physical activities coupled with some kind of craft" to serve all types of kids, she says. "And every child receives a present on their actual birthday," a box with $10-15 worth of items based on ideas they request.
In September, Beverly's Birthdays began holding monthly celebrations for the kids at Auberle in McKeesport as well. Auberle serves more children, including more high-school-age kids, and offers a greater range of services than Sojourner. Finding the right celebration has proved a bit more daunting, Yunn says.
For the first try, she brought in a mobile videogame theater with eight seats, secured at a discount from local Games2U vendor Ed Anderson, who hauled it up on a trailer. The party was wall-to-wall videogames and pizza and pop.
"One of the kids, I gave him his birthday present, and he said, 'Ms. Megs, I didn't know what to wish for on my birthday, but this is better than anything I could have expected.'" He was referring, she says, to the entire experience -- not just his present. "I set myself a bar kind of high for this first party. Now I need to be creative and top it."
Beverly's Birthdays is a family affair at the moment. At the Spider Man party, Yunn points to the spider-hat table. "My mom used to teach pre-school and she's super-crafty. I said, mom, can you make spider hats of some kind? This is what she came up with." Yunn's sister in Chicago does the organization's Website and graphic design for their logo and t-shirt.
"I grew up with Megs," says volunteer Josh Whiteside. "I was looking for an opportunity to do something like this. I help with some of the marketing and fundraising. And child wrangling."
Yunn believes the birthdays are having an effect on the kids -- and on her. "I like the fact that I'm a part of not only something special on that day, but that I am creating special memories on that day," she says. "These children I work with, their resiliency is so inspiring. I can't imagine what they have been through. They are so open to love and quick to give me hugs. I love the fact that they are so open to me. A lot of the kids are too young to know what they've been missing in their lives."
The Spider Man birthday is all over in an hour.
"Was that a lot of fun?" she asks the kids. She gets screams in response.
"I think everybody had fun," she says. "But what brings me so much joy and what I appreciated about this party is seeing the moms interact with the kids. And that is something that we have seen grow since February."
In the end, she says, Beverly's Birthdays is intended "to try to teach students that they can be an asset to their community and make a contribution."