The Happy Birthday Project
In Calgary, job loss, depression, poverty and an economic downturn plague the Canadian nation just as it does so many others. But thanks to two women with a vision, The Happy Birthday Project is ensuring children in Calgary no longer pass their birthdays without a smile.

Crystal Gelsinger and Mandy Watts were two childhood friends and recent mothers. One day in 2012, they stumbled upon an advertisement searching for cake mix donations for families that didn’t have the means to bake a cake for their child’s birthday. The simple ad launched an innovative idea and project that has now brought hundreds of children smiles.

The Happy Birthday Project, now an official non-profit organization, provides the basic supplies to poverty-stricken families to throw a child birthday party.

“We know we’re not going to change their lives, but we hope we can give them a little bit of joy,” Gelsinger told the Calgary Sun.

The organization hands out “party packs,” which consist of birthday cake mix, cake pan or cupcake wrappers, cutlery, plates, cups, decorations, snacks, gift bags, as well as a special gift for the child.

The organization learns about the children before they shop. They find out what each child likes to do, their hobbies and interests, so they are better able to form the perfect, hand-made custom party pack.

According to Gelsinger and Watts, every child deserves to feel special and celebrated on their birthday. Their mission is to bring joy to the lives of children and families facing adversity.

“It just breaks my heart because we all love our children the same but we just don’t all have the same means to provide a birthday cake, a birthday party,” Gelsinger told the paper.

The Happy Birthday Project grew extensively after creation. Once the program reached a certain size, the two women could no longer able to lead it by themselves. The group most recently was taken over by another organization known as Made by Momma.

Since the new organizer’s expansion, 737 birthday packages have been handed out to families in need. The Happy Birthday Project now also throws actual birthday parties at both the nearby party House in Calgary and the Brenda Strafford Centre.

The organization serves the families referred to them through local Calgary social agencies. The families are referred by a social worker, social agency or shelter.

The Happy Birthday Project accepts donations and volunteers. They are looking for delivery drivers, event volunteers, donation drive organizers, craft committee members and special project volunteers.

The organization is also accepting donations for party items. If you have extra unused paper plates, streamers, child-themed gift wrappings, batteries, or scotch tape, they can be donated to this valuable cause. A full list of the needed supplies can be found on their website. Anyone interested in donating or volunteering can visit the organization’s website for more information.

Katie Grovatt

Photo: Flickr

Town Library
Rwinkwavu, a community of 30,000 people in Rwanda, is significantly economically disadvantaged. The town is mostly made up of farmers and lacks basic modern resources such as running water and power.

Despite these conditions, the non-profit Ready for Reading built a town library in 2012 that Worldreader, a Barcelona-based charity, then filled with e-readers, smartphones, Wi-Fi and a broad range of digital books for locals to explore.

Books not only provide entertainment, but their educational value is paramount. This access to knowledge helps to improve language skills and literacy while explaining new and different information in an enjoyable way. More specifically, reading has helped adults in Rwinkwavu master various skills including applying for new jobs, opening bank accounts and even running their own businesses.

Accessing knowledge through reading has also helped children develop interests in topics they most likely would not have explored otherwise. Each night, people of all ages now gather at Rwinkwavu’s town library to read after long days of laboring in their fields. As they continue to learn new information, new doors continue to open for them.

More than one in three adults in sub-Saharan Africa, a total of 182 million, are unable to read and write. In Rwanda, 48 million of the youths are illiterate. The population’s lack of education has led to 44 percent of people living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. However, new town libraries like the one in Rwinkwavu could potentially change the status quo.

Worldreader has already used its digital books to fill multiple schools and libraries across 14 different countries in sub-Saharan Africa, helping to educate over 100,000 children and adults. The charity hopes to continue its expansion, with plans to fill another two libraries by the end of the year.

“There is massive inequality in the world. Africa needs education at scale to start closing the gaps,” said Worldreader Co-Founder Colin McElwee.

Alice Gottesman

Photo: Worldreader

Global education fund
Sunny Varkey, an entrepreneur from India who lives in Dubai, launched the Varkey Foundation Challenge Fund in March 2016. The $200,000 global education fund was created to support education projects across the globe.

Varkey set up the Challenge Fund to help accomplish the goals of his non-profit, the Varkey Foundation, which works to ensure every child in the world has access to quality teachers.

The fund strives to provide good teachers and quality education to all children, no matter their circumstances.

“The Challenge Fund looks to support early-stage initiatives which build the capacity of teachers and to strengthen the status of the teaching profession,” Varkey said.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and South Asia are facing massive teacher shortages. This has put efforts to provide quality teachers and education for children at risk.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that sub-Saharan Africa must raise its current stock of teachers by 68 percent in less than a decade to provide its students with enough teachers.

However, simply hiring teachers will not solve the problem. Educators will need adequate training and support in order to provide quality instruction.

The minimum qualification to become a teacher is approximately nine years of schooling. Unfortunately, 43 percent of teachers in the Congo and 55 percent of teachers in Lao People’s Democratic Republic do not meet this requirement.

The countries that need the most new teachers are also the countries with the least-qualified teachers — this issue is one the Varkey Foundation Challenge Fund hopes to fix.

Varkey’s first projects have already been chosen but non-profit organizations from any country may apply for a portion of the global education fund.

The company will start with organizations in China, Ghana, the Middle East and Ukraine according to The Economic Times. Partner organizations that offer innovative solutions that support the fund’s mission are also offered grants of up to $50,000.

Alice Gottesman

Photo: Pixabay


Vida USA, a nonprofit organization based in the Bay Area of California, brings health aid to Latin America. Volunteers for Inter-American Development Assistance (Vida USA) was founded in 1991 in response to a cholera outbreak traveling from Peru to North America.

In Pamplona Alto, Peru, 40,000 people live in shacks with no running water, toilets or sewage systems. Contaminated dirt roads, where children play with broken toys, are common. These children need vaccinations to enroll in school, but medical supplies and health care are very scarce.

Vida USA collects a surplus of medical supplies from Bay Area hospitals, medical clinics and individual volunteers at its warehouse in Emeryville, California. The medical equipment and medicine are then shipped overseas and used to provide free services for people living in poverty.

“What Vida does is we bring all the supplies and equipment they need on an ongoing basis,” said Vida-USA executive director, Adam See.

The mission of Vida USA is to help provide health aid to Latin America by sending medical supplies to its most vulnerable communities. The organization provides assistance to health institutions, which supports those in need. The non-profit organization accumulates tons of unused, viable medical supplies headed for local landfills and uses them to supply health aid to Latin America.

Another initiative revolves around the HIV virus that “[infects] children in Latin America at an alarming rate,” according to Vida. Many children are infected by their own mother’s breast milk. Milagro de Vida is a program created by Vida USA to provide infant formula to mothers with HIV and educate high school students about HIV causes and effects.

Through its program Puente de Vida, Vida USA organizes groups of volunteer doctors to provide free medical consultations, basic nutrition and pre-natal care, monthly and follow-up visits to address the primary health care needs of communities throughout Peru. The organization’s various programs clearly demonstrate its commitment to creating well-rounded health infrastructure in Peru.

Since 1991, Vida USA has worked with 1,200 health care facilities and social service programs shipping 200 containers, which are worth over $225 million in Latin America, throughout Peru.

Jackie Venuti

Photo: Flickr

FeelGood Eating Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
“We need to alter the way that we think about global poverty. Often we say that there are a billion mouths to feed… No, there are a billion human beings with an unimaginable potential that is waiting to be unleashed,” shared Connor Spahn, Changemaker Ignitor at FeelGood.

FeelGood is a nonprofit youth movement working to end global hunger by 2030. With more than 25 chapters on campuses across the country, “FeelGood students engage in a multi-faceted training program, gaining the knowledge and skills to run a successful social enterprise—a grilled cheese deli—to raise money and build public support for a systemic approach to hunger eradication.”

In 2004 FeelGood co-founders Kristin Walter and Talis Apud Hendricks from the University of Texas at Austin realized there were one billion people in the world who lacked a voice.

“This didn’t feel good to them,” Spahn explained, recollecting stories he has heard of the organization’s origin. The idea for FeelGood was the brainchild of Kristin’s future husband: start a pop-up grilled cheese stand on campus and start selling sandwiches. A simple idea to combat a colossal issue. The duo raised ten thousand dollars by the end of the year. There is no reason why this couldn’t happen on every campus, they thought. So after graduation, they got FeelGood established as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Through word of mouth (at first) colleges began to open chapters.

“One thing we know for sure is that college students love grilled cheese sandwiches,” Spahn reported.  “It’s a simple point of nostalgia in American culture. Students should be aware of international issues because they are a part of an interconnected and interdependent world. Whether we notice it or not, we are dependent on the lives of people in other countries.” But as Spahn pointed out “international issues are hard to grasp, they’re more daunting and less digestible, but the point of a grilled cheese is to make it digestible,” Spahn shared humorously.

“Our solution is two-fold: first, end chronic, persistent hunger through raising money for organizations that work on grassroots development and tackle gender inequality. Second, combat apathy in this country.”

“As freshman, I was drawn to table because of stickers,” Kristen Fu, fourth-year president of UC Berkeley’s FeelGood chapter recollected. “My roommate really loved grilled cheese and she was there, so we decided to check it out. The tabler explained what seemed to us like a really simple and cool idea… sell grilled cheese, donate money, end world hunger.” She was interested and became a general member, attending meetings and volunteering every Wednesday for two hours.

She became more involved every year, she continued to learn more about how they operated and their relationship with their non-profit partners, CHOICE Humanitarian and The Hunger Project. She was really inspired and encouraged that as students they could make such a big difference.

As a general member, Connor just had an hour shift. “It was such an easy way to get involved, any college student could do it. If an hour or two is a good level of commitment for you, then that’s great; if you’d like to do more, then that’s great too! Give whatever feels good to you.”

Both Connor and Kristen spoke to the immense enrichment that their undergraduate involvement with FeelGood provided. Kristen attested to the practical skills she has learned, how to run her own business, speak to donors, articulate a philosophy, event planning, leadership, self-motivation and more. However, they were both in agreement about bigger takeaways as well, such as an understanding of social entrepreneurship, doing business for good and learning to be a global citizen.

“They’re not just people you see or read about in commercials, not just a statistic but a person. That philosophy drives a lot of what we do. In order to become committed to ending global poverty, it has to be something that feels good.”

— Leonna Spilman

Sources: Choice Humanitarian, FeelGood, The Hunger Project
Photo: Taste Spotting