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Party With Purpose: Why I Swap Birthday Gifts for Cash (and Give it to Schools)

The gifts are replaced by donations and the theme is centered more on kids than the adults in the room.

This Saturday, for the third year in a row I will celebrate my birthday in a special way. My friends, family, and colleagues have been invited to a birthday soiree in Downtown Los Angeles full of drinks, live entertainment, music and even a red carpet with "paparazzi." However the gifts have been replaced by donations and the theme is centered more on kids than the adults in the room. I've decided that going forward my birthdays will be parties for a purpose.

This started because turning 30 troubled me. It wasn't so much the age as the thought that as a young professional I wasn't doing enough to help lift up the city I live in. Working in schools in East and South L.A., I had the privilege of seeing amazing students who were overcoming extraordinary obstacles to succeed. I also witnessed that budget cuts and poverty were stopping many Los Angeles Unified students from participating in even basic opportunities, like field trips and school projects.

Lack of school funding isn't just an issue in Los Angeles. Since the beginning of the "Great Recession" states have made steep cuts to education funding, many of those cuts deepened over the last year. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, elementary and high schools in 26 states are receiving less state funding this school year than they did last year, and in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels.

Seeing these realities led to my desire to invest directly in the ideas of public school students. I first tried this out with a group of students from L.A.'s Watts neighborhood who had a goal. They wanted desperately to take a trip to visit the nation's capitol the way well-resourced schools in other communities had done. Unfortunately they were $10,000 short of reaching their dream. Inspired, my friends, family and I quickly organized my first birthday fundraiser called "D.C. or Bust." Attendees paid to get in, donated money at the bar, gave online and even auctioned items to raise the money. We raised enough funds to send them there and pay for their hotel accommodations.

Out of the three dozen students who got to go to D.C., most of the students had never left their immediate community, let alone hopped in an airplane to go to another state. During the flight to D.C. one of the students kept reminding the woman who was texting next to her that the stewardess clearly told her to turn off her cell phone and that she was not willing to die before she saw the White House. Once they landed the students visited all the landmarks and loved every minute of it—except the amount of walking they endured, which reaffirmed that these were indeed L.A. kids.

The second fundraiser centered on an important cause. Student leaders who heard about the first fundraiser came to me concerned about school violence, in particular bullying. They asked me to support their idea to start anti-bullying clubs in South L.A. schools. Heeding their vision, my friends and I organized the "Kick Knowledge Not People" birthday fundraiser and collected close to $10,000 to help provide seed money to start these new ventures.

This year, high school students at Mendez Learning Center in Boyle Heights are fighting to keep the mentorship program City Year on their campus. Thus, my 32nd birthday is dedicated to raising $15,000 to keep this program from becoming extinct.

I do these fundraisers, frankly, because our students deserve better. I've seen some noteworthy efforts to raise money for national issues or for causes overseas. Although giving to any cause is important, I can't stand by and watch public school students in my own neighborhood struggle for opportunities to explore and exercise their leadership. As stakeholders we have to do what we can to support student success in order to ensure that future generations have the ability to do the same for the next generation. By the way, we should also make sure to have fun doing it.

Here's my challenge to you: Take up a charge for your birthday. Create your own party with a purpose by supporting one of your local public schools, having your friends bring clothes to donate next time you get together, or sponsoring a volunteer day. We all can play our part. By the way, we should also make sure to have fun while giving back.

This Saturday I hope to repeat the past success we've had, drink in one hand and my fingers crossed in the other.

Click here to add turning your birthday into a "party for a purpose" to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Photo courtesy of Ryan J. Smith

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