With the vision of providing less fortunate children with the opportunity to celebrate their birthday, CBM throws monthly birthday parties at Inn from the Cold, a local homeless shelter in Calgary. CBM went international in June and is now hosting birthday parties at orphanages in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.
SEE Change had the opportunity to speak with the young philanthropic-minded Kassam, to ask her what inspired the launch of such an ambitious project and how she keeps it running so successfully.
What inspired your to launch your initiative at such a young age?
At my 12th birthday party, I had an allergic reaction to my cake. I felt my birthday was ruined and I was blaming other people, more so than myself. And I said, ‘I’ll never have a good birthday again’. I felt apathetic and didn’t want to treasure the day anymore. The next year when I was thinking of my birthday, a part of me didn’t even want to have a party. My parents suggested I use my birthday as a way to give back.
I searched online and found Inn from the Cold and saw I could buy meals for homeless families. So for my 13th 14th and 15th birthdays I did that. But for my 16th I wanted something different. And the Inn didn’t have an opening anyway so it was a hint for me to do something bigger. I decided to create an organization. I contacted Inn from the Cold and told them of my idea. My parents weren’t for it at first because it’s a lot of work but I really wanted to do it. So it started in January 2013 and everything went from there.
You expanded to Tanzania and even had an event in Peru. How did that international focus come about?
In the span of less than a year, CBM has spread across the globe. My parents are from Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania so there’s a connection. We made a Facebook page and started promoting it and my aunt found it and she wanted to start it there. Every month we give her funds and she runs it at a couple of orphanages there.
Then one of our local ambassadors went on a service trip to Cusco, Peru and celebrated a birthday party at the Mother Teresa Home for disabled children. That was a one-off thing.CBM Birthday Party in Peru
How do you raise funds?
We apply for many grants – we just got one from the National Bank. And a lot of times we find adults who want their kids to do the same, so they donate their kids’ birthday presents to us.
You met the founder of McDonalds Canada, George Cohon. How did that meeting come about?
I’m involved in Junior Achievement (JA), a business program that helps youth experience the business world. I was selected as winner of the Deloitte Inspiration Award and I was sent to Toronto and got to go to the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. And this man sitting beside me asked me about what I do. I told him I was really passionate about philanthropy and how I started my own organization. I described it and what we do and how JA inspired me. He said he wanted to donate. He took out his business card in the shape of big mac and I saw who he was. I told him he was a real inspiration to me. He donated $500 to CBM and I get free big macs wherever I go.
You also caught the eye of Coca-Cola. Tell us about that.
Last March, I wanted to promote CBM so I contacted CBC news and they decided to do a feature on the organization. They came and interviewed my family. Then I got an email in May from Coca-Cola saying they read the story and I was one of three youth chosen as part of their Open Happiness Project. They sponsored three of us. We got the chance to rent Calaway Park, an amusement park, for the evening and to give 200 deserving teens the opportunity to celebrate a birthday party like no other! They received an enormous cake, loot bags, barbeque and unlimited games and rides. It was an adventurous day that these teens will never forget (captured in this YouTube video).CBM rents Calaway Park for 200 teens
What do your future plans look like?
We’re looking into starting CBM in Toronto and at shelters who are interested in it. I’m in grade 12 so I’ll be going off to college next year. My parents will run CBM then but I’ll be in town a lot so I’ll participate in a number of parties still. It’s already almost self-run so it’s not as difficult [to run] as when we started from scratch.
I want to study accounting. I’m really passionate about math. And a CA helped start up CBM so I hope to do that for plenty of others in the future.
What are you most proud of?
We honestly couldn’t have accomplished this much without the help of our donors and sponsors. The inspiring aspect of CBM is how we inspired teens and children across the globe to donate their birthday presents to a deserving cause. One of the most inspiring stories is when a mother, whose birthday is in March, decided to make a wish before blowing out the birthday candles.
Before she blew the candles she mentioned, “I wish for a home.” She truly touched all the volunteers’ hearts and many people now understand how grateful they are to be living in their own home. After hearing this story, we hope that others give back to their community the way CBM has given back to the world.
Birthdays are not only a chance to wish for miracles, but also a chance for miracles to become your reality. Let’s start making a difference today by inspiring the world to give back to our community by performing random acts of kindness.
Sheliza Kassam is the founder and president of Children’s Birthday Miracles based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.