"No one ever regrets making a difference in the life of someone less fortunate."
Six years ago, Karen Kitchel, 52, of Eagan, Minnesota, started her family's Thanksgiving tradition of filling birthday bags for children living in shelters. This volunteer eventually left her 30-year career in management to work full time for Cheerful Givers, the nonprofit of which she is now president.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
Karen: Cheerful Givers provides birthday gift bags, containing small toys and treats, for children who are living in shelters or whose families must rely on food shelves. We found that many children get missed on their birthday because their parents cannot afford to recognize them. We have many youth volunteers who help to provide and assemble birthday bags.
What is the name and location of the organization?
Karen: Cheerful Givers, Eagan, Minnesota.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
Karen: The "givers" and the "receivers" benefit from this work. The "receivers" are the children who may have never had an opportunity to experience the joy of celebrating their birthday by receiving a gift from their parents. Receivers are also the parents who, because of their economic situation, cannot afford to recognize their child on their special day. "Givers" include various youth groups (schools, churches, civic groups, families, etc.) who have an opportunity to make a difference in their community by assembling birthday bags, which is also a fun activity.
What inspired you to get involved?
Karen: Being a parent, I could hardly imagine what it must feel like to know that today is your child's birthday, but you have no way to recognize them. When I heard about Cheerful Givers, I thought it was a unique organization and that it was addressing an unmet need (many other organizations provide holiday gifts). Hearing the stories about the children who receive the birthday bags convinced me that I wanted to be part of this organization.
How did you first get involved? Give us some details.
Karen: I first got my family involved in assembling birthday bags at home. We started a tradition six years ago of filling birthday bags on Thanksgiving Day after our meal. Then I started a Cheerful Givers team where I worked and got others to join me once each month at lunch time to assemble bags. Eventually I left my management position, where I worked for 30 years, to work full-time for Cheerful Givers.
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
Karen: One day I had an opportunity to go to a shelter in Minneapolis and see some children receive birthday bags. The smiles on their faces were such an unbelievable expression of joy that I will never forget it. More recently, we received from an 8-year-old boy two dollars in an envelope with a note that he wrote about how he wanted his $2 to be used for a gift for another boy or girl. These experiences confirm that we're making a difference in the lives of children.
What is/was the hardest part?
Karen: Hardest part is getting funding so we can continue to grow to meet the huge need.
What was the biggest surprise?
Karen: I continue to be surprised to see who donates their time and resources. Often, it is people who don't have a lot of either who are willing to share it with others.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
Karen: I've gained a much greater appreciation for all the wonderful kids who really value making a difference for others. As a result, I've placed a greater focus on getting kids involved early as Cheerful Givers, and I believe we will have Cheerful Givers many decades in the future.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
Karen: Do it!! No one ever regrets making a difference in the life of someone less fortunate.
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