Forget Bounce Houses! Have Your Kid’s Next Party at an Animal Shelter
When 6-year-old Carter James of Louisville, Ky., was invited to attend a classmate’s birthday party at the Kentucky Humane Society, he eagerly accepted. Carter’s mom, Jodi James, says that while she and Carter didn’t know what to expect of the party, they were both pleasantly surprised it wasn’t another bounce house.
A growing number of animal shelters are hosting children's birthday parties, offering a fun, positive alternative for pet-loving families. Kids learn about helping pets in need, and shelters gain a new revenue stream and opportunity to build community support for their programs and efforts.
Activities at shelter birthday parties vary, but many include the rental and decoration of a party room, a pet-related craft, a tour of the shelter, games and often a little puppy love from one or more of the shelter’s sociable residents.
Shana Silverman of Niskayuna, N.Y., hosted her daughter Sasha’s 7th birthday party at their local shelter, the Animal Protective Foundation. Sasha’s 11 guests toured the shelter, learned about animal care, did a coloring activity about animals, ate cake and played games outside.
James says the kids at the party Carter attended made homemade dog biscuits.
Dr. Kris Haley of the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix says an exciting part of their parties is when the birthday boy or girl gets to name one of the shelter pets.
For birthday parties at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay in Tampa, Fla., kids decorate a frame to hold the photo of an adoptable pet, says Ornella Varchi, volunteer and outreach manager. The framed photos are then displayed in the shelter to showcase pets needing forever homes.
Varchi says the guests then head out into the shelter’s dog yard for a scavenger hunt to find items people would need if they adopt a cat or dog. “The kids are divided into a cat team and a dog team and instructed to find a list of items we’ve hidden throughout the outdoors area — leashes, bowls, toys and more. It’s a good educational game about pet care, and the kids have a blast,” she says. “And it helps burn off some energy,” she adds with a laugh.
In lieu of gifts for the birthday boy or girl, many party hosts request guests bring donations of cash or goods to the humane society.
James says the family that invited Carter to their party provided guests with a list of items the shelter needed. “It shows that the party givers really cared,” she says.
Silverman says her daughter loves animals and she thought it would be a great way to teach her about giving. “I love that my daughter was able to participate in a cause that she cares about. She is growing up with animals, but her love of them is innate,” she says.
Sasha, the birthday girl, asked for donations instead of gifts. Her mother was pleased. “I am also not crazy about the rather excessive gift giving, so I was glad to divert gifts to donations,” Silverman says. “We ended up donating a couple of huge bags of toys and food to the shelter.”
New Revenue Stream for Shelters
Depending on the shelter, parties range from $150 for 12 kids to more than $250 for up to 20. Varchi says some families donate more than the $150 party fee. With an average of one to two parties a weekend, the party revenue adds up.
And a team of enthusiastic volunteers manages the parties, Varchi says. “We’ve just incorporated birthday parties as part of our regular weekend activities,” she says. “The staff loves it!”
Varchi says they promote the birthday party option on their website, via social media and, above all, through word-of-mouth. Many families come back to host future birthday parties there, as do families of the guests.
Building Community Awareness and Support
Engaging families in this way draws them in to the shelter and often inspires them to be more involved in shelter programs. “These families start adoring the shelter,” Varchi says. And, in the process, they become bigger supporters and advocates.
Varchi says the birthday parties have helped grow their other community programs, including one of their large fundraisers, Critter Camp, which is a summer day camp for kids. “Now the camps fill up very quickly and we’ve increased the length from four weeks to seven weeks,” Varchi says. She also adds that Girl Scout and Boy Scout troop visits to the shelter have also increased since the birthday parties started a year ago. “We get to know a lot of the families, the kids love it and it has really helped build community and support,” she says.
Dr. Haley agrees. “Some families have adopted companions, and others enroll their children in future camps and activities. We’ve also had a number of repeat visitors,” she says.
With pressure on parents and kids to continually raise the bar for birthday party extravaganzas, it's no wonder some families are looking for a more meaningful option. Parties at shelters provide a refreshing alternative with families feeling good about their venue choice. “They tell us that they feel as though they make a difference when they celebrate here,” Dr. Haley says.
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