When Paige Chenault was pregnant with her now-8-year-old daughter, she dreamed of the gorgeous birthday parties she would throw for her little girl. At the time, Chenault was a successful wedding planner in Dallas who "loved being part of people's celebrations."
But while she was on a trip, her perspective shifted.
"I was on a plane to visit my friend, reading a magazine article about kids' birthday parties. I was so excited thinking about all the ways I could celebrate her—the Pinterest-worthy parties and such!" Chenault tells Mom.me via email. "After reading that magazine, I picked up a Time magazine. As I opened it, I saw an image of a little boy. He was standing in a crowded, dirty street. He had sunken eyes and a bloated belly, and he seemed to be staring right at me. As I stared at this image, a fire lit in my belly, and my stomach started to churn. All I could hear was, 'What about him? What about this little boy?'"
That's when Chenault conceived of the idea of throwing birthday parties for kids in need, specifically kids who live in homeless shelters. While she waited a few years to really get started—she was pregnant, after all!—The Birthday Party Project will be celebrating its fifth birthday in January and is now throwing parties in cities across the country.
We talked to Chenault about how she got her start, what surprised her most about launching her nonprofit and what other moms need to know about starting their own passion project.
How have you made your vision for The Birthday Party Project come to fruition?
I asked my favorite, smartest people to talk through this idea with me, and they gave brilliant advice. I’m so grateful for their willingness to walk beside me as we took a risk to make this happen. We started simply: We asked one homeless shelter in Dallas to partner with us for one year. We promised to show up every single month to celebrate all the kids that had a birthday that month, and we made sure that everyone was invited to the celebration! The first part was a huge success. Kids were laughing, dancing, running around. We celebrated the coolest kids that night with my favorite friends by my side.I felt so supported, and so very inspired! After our first party, I knew I had found my purpose.
Describe the moment you first felt successful?
Measuring success is tricky, right? Some days, success feels like cooking dinner for my family after a long day! But truly, I would say the moment I realized this was larger than a dream was when I had the privilege of meeting a stranger who heard about us and believed so strongly in our mission that she helped us hire our first employees. When we had our first team members in place, we were able to celebrate more children in Dallas. It felt like we had made it! We went from hosting one party a month to hosting four parties a month in a matter of weeks. It was surreal and so empowering. At that moment, I knew that this grassroots effort would truly change our communities.
As a successful female entrepreneur/founder of a nonprofit, what are some ways that you want to teach your daughter about "girl power"?
The women in my life are truly extraordinary. From working moms to stay-at-home moms to single girls that rock at life—[my daughter] has a tremendous network to look up to. The women in my life are selfless, compassionate and driven. When Lizzie walks into our office, she often sees five mammas working hard to love people well, who go home with a smile on their face to be with their families. I’m so honored to have such dedicated gals in my life for her to look up to. They love one another well—they cut through the drama and crap that can often consume us. I want Lizzie to know she can be anything in life she wants to be, but that being kind to others is the best way to get there. The gals in my life treat one another with such kindness and care. I’m grateful for their example in her life. We are better together—there’s no doubt about that!
Has there been anything about building The Birthday Party Project that has surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?
There are too many to count! One thing I am constantly amazed by is the willingness of our party coordinators (volunteers who lead our parties) to sign up for a leadership role and serve in that role year after year. Literally, I have never encountered a group of people so dedicated to serving others. They are ALL IN for our mission, and I literally pinch myself weekly. They keep showing up and making MAGIC happen across our country. I mean, geesh! They believe in my little dream with such force, I’m amazed.
I want my daughter to know she can be anything in life she wants to be, but that being kind to others is the best way to get there.
Can you share a story about one of the families/kids you helped that stands out for you?
I learn something new every time I attend a party. Recently, I attended a party at a domestic violence shelter, SafeHaven Arlington (Texas). I had the privilege of rallying all the kids outside the party room and getting them excited to enter the party. That night, I noticed three teenage girls all dressed in matching PJs, standing in the corner with their mom. They seemed very timid and uncertain. I urged them to join the party, and they did! I met them with a manicure set and nail polish, and we sat and started painting nails.
At first, these girls were too cool for school, but then we just started talking: boys, clothes, nail polish, and I found out these sisters were 12, 13, and the birthday girl was turning 14. They'd just moved into the shelter the day before. As I was convincing them that this party was cool, their mom walked in, tears streaming down her face. She said, “Is this your party?” Before I could reply “yes," she had me in a full embrace, sobbing on my shoulder. We stood hugging for what seemed like minutes.
She proceeded to tell me that when they moved in the day before, she remembered her daughter’s birthday was around the corner and she wasn’t sure how she would be able to celebrate her. In fact, for the next three months, she would have birthdays to celebrate. She thanked us profusely for supporting her by celebrating her daughters. I was so moved by her courage to leave an abusive relationship, I burst into tears. It was a perfect example of community and support. I left feeling so encouraged and humbled.
What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own foundation or nonprofit?
Do it! Take the first step. I used to think the first steps were the hardest, but I truly think if you have an idea or a vision, now is the time. There is never a good time to start anything new. Life always gets in the way. Think that’s cliche’? I dare you to try it. You’ll be amazed at the freedom and support you’ll feel!
What sacrifices have you made as a mom and a nonprofit founder to keep everything in balance?
"Balance" can be such a dirty word. There’s so much out there about this work/life balance—how to find it, keep it and teach it. I can honestly say that I haven’t found balance for a long duration of time, but I have found peace. I re-evaluated my friendships. I realized that my true friends are always there. A friend once gave me a great piece of wisdom: If you have to work hard to be someone’s friend, it’s not a friendship worth having. I immediately went home and cleaned out my contacts list. I gave up on trying to be “room mom of the year." There are amazing women that take care of all the details of school, and I’m thankful they copy me AND my husband on the emails, just in case I miss it.
I have cut back on happy hours, networking events and some travel opportunities. I want to serve our mission well, lead our teams with enthusiasm and love my family in earnest. I can’t do it all, and now is not the time to please everyone. Being a people pleaser leaves me with such anxiety. Cutting out the distraction has been a tremendous gift to my family and our TBPP team.
What would you say are the most important skills you've brought from your experience as an event planner to your current post?
Relationships. I love knowing people. I loved getting to know my clients—their desires, family dynamics and expectations. I loved working with my vendor colleagues, understanding their strengths and how they could serve our clients best. And I loved the teams that made our celebrations come to life! I think that realizing how important people bussing tables, tending bar and serving food are to an event has helped me lead our team and our birthday enthusiasts to try and respect and celebrate everyone. Every single person is so important. Each of us contributes so much to the success of a celebration, whether you’re the family being celebrated, or the volunteer bringing your kids to a party, or the DJ rocking our party. We all benefit from being together. That’s where the magic happens!
What do you see The Birthday Party Project looking like in five or 10 years?
My greatest hope is that The Birthday Party Project is a force of JOY for kids all across the country! I want every child experiencing transition because of family decisions, abuse, poverty and disease to know how much they matter, how loved they are, and that they can truly change the world. I want The Birthday Party Project to be a household name and for kids to ask to go to a TBPP party to volunteer or celebrate their own birthday. I hope that by experiencing our parties, we can start a conversation about how we treat one another, and why a joyful community is to important.