Q&A: Cheerful Givers Celebrates 500,000 Gift Bags, Gets Recognition From Gov. Dayton

Patch spoke with Cheerful Givers President Karen Kitchel to find out more about the organization and "The Great Minnesota Birthday Party."

On Saturday afternoon, Eagan-based nonprofit Cheerful Givers will host "The Great Minnesota Birthday Party" at the Mall of America. At the event, the organization—which distributes birthday gifts to disadvantaged children across the state—will celebrate its 500,000th donated gift bag. If that wasn't enough, Gov. Mark Dayton has declared Saturday Cheerful Givers Day in Minnesota.

Eagan Patch caught up with Cheerful Givers President and Eagan resident Karen Kitchel to find out what all the fuss is about. To find out more about the event, .

Eagan Patch: Fill me in on the background of Cheerful Givers? How did the organization get its start, and what is your mission?

Cheerful Givers President Karen Kitchel: The mission of Cheerful Givers is to provide toy-filled birthday gift bags that are distributed through food shelves and shelters for parents who simply can't afford to give their child a gift. The way the organization got started is back in 1994. A good friend of mine by the name of Robin Steele went to a food shelf in Minneapolis and asked the director if there was something people needed when they came to the food shelf that they couldn't get. He thought about it and he said, 'You know Robin, when a parent comes in and their child has a birthday coming up, they're frantically looking for something, and if they're lucky, they'll get a box of ceral, or sometimes it would be a can of green beans, just to have something to give their child.' Robin thought: 'That's not right, kids should have something fun on their birthday.' She went right over to Target, and she bought a dozen gift bags and an assortment of small toys and filled those gift bags and took them right back down to the food shelf ... She started getting her family and friends to fill birthday bags and then realized that this was bigger than what she could do.

Patch: Why does your organization feel that it’s so important for disadvantaged children to receive birthday gifts? What impacts can a gift like that have on a child or a family?

Kitchel: While we're providing a birthday gift bag, what we're really providing is the self-esteem to go with it. If you can just imagine being a child, knowing it's your birthday, and nothing happens, there aren't any gifts, and you start questioning. We've heard this from kids: They think there's something wrong with them, they think only other kids get birthdays, and that's just not right. And then if you think about being the parent of a child, and as a parent, if you can't recognize a child's birthday in any way, what impact does that have on your self-worth? It's strengthening the bonds in less fortunate families. These families never have an opportunity to have a one-on-one day where they're celebrating something.

Patch: Gov. Mark Dayton has declared Saturday to be Cheerful Givers Day in Minnesota, and you’ll be celebrating by assembling your 500,000th gift bag at the Mall of America? How did this come about, and how did you get the governor onboard?

Kitchel: Five years ago was the first time we approached the Mall of America to hold an event there. We held an event with the same purpose of this event, which is to raise awareness of Cheerful Givers and of the need for kids to be recognized on their birthday by their parents and to raise funds to support this so it can happen. The event has grown over the years, and we've been basically keeping the governor informed on what we're doing and asking for a proclamation. He supports what we're doing, of course, to help those who are less fortunate in Minnesota. The proclamation is really to recognize children throughout the state of Minnesota.

Patch: How significant is this event for Cheerful Givers, and what is it like to have your own official day to recognize the organization and your efforts?

Kitchel: "It's wonderful to have our day, and of course it also helps in the promotion. Really, what I believe will be the key point of the event, and it will happen at 2 p.m. in Sears Court at the Mall of America, is that we've invited 10 special guests, who will come up on stage, and they will assemble that 500,000th birthday bag. The 10 special guests are people who represent those that have been a big part of our success. For example, we have Lisa Horn, the executive director of the , to represent all the food shelves who distribute our birthday bags.yes, 500,000 is a huge number, and we're very thankful for that, yet today in Minnesota, there are over 170,000 kids considered to be living in poverty, and those are the kids we want to reach.

Patch: What’s next for your organization? Any upcoming initiatives or events that we should know about? Are you foreseeing any growth in your organization?

Kitchel: Definitely, we want to see the growth. Our goal for this calendar year is to reach 90,000 kids, so that's an increase. The very first year, we reached 700 kids, and this year, we're reaching for 90,000, and [we want] to continue to increase the percentage of kids we're able to reach. As far as what we have planned, we have events and activites every month. For example, in April we'll have an weeklong online auction at our website, cheerfulgivers.org. We have an event out in Target Field with the Minnesota Twins ... and they will be doing a breakfast with a couple of Twins players.

Patch: If people are interested in volunteering or contributing or just learning a little more about you guys, where can they go and what resources are there for them.

Kitchel: The best to go for more information, or also to make a donation, is the website, cheerfulgivers.org. We do have information there about the various volunteer opportunities. In addition, we always look for groups, corporate groups, community groups, families who can provide the items or provide the funds and assemble the birthday bags in their own location. Beyond that, there's a number of individual opportunites, people who would like to do some online research to help us find some new potential donors, or people who would like to write some articles for our newsletter.

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