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News / Churches & Religion

Vancouver church wants all children to have happy birthdays

Volunteers assemble 300 gift kits for foster and homeless kids in Clark County

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 28, 2023, 8:45pm
3 Photos
The birthday kit assembly event Saturday at River City Church in Vancouver was supposed to go from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but because of the 60 volunteers who showed up -- more than double the expected number -- the work was done before 10 a.m.
The birthday kit assembly event Saturday at River City Church in Vancouver was supposed to go from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but because of the 60 volunteers who showed up -- more than double the expected number -- the work was done before 10 a.m. (Clarissa Sidhom) Photo Gallery

Life for hundreds of children in Clark County in foster care or whose families are homeless is hard enough. But imagine the pain of a child in that world when no one marks his or her birthday.

Volunteers at River City Church on Saturday made sure that doesn’t happen for more than 300 young people in Vancouver.

On Saturday, a fleet of volunteers — from school-age children to seniors — assembled birthday kits containing cake mix and supplies, colorful streamers, balloons, and gifts ranging from Hot Wheels and fidget toys to Barbies. Some kits included gift cards to locations like Dairy Queen for families who might not be set up to bake a cake, like those who camp in a car every night.

“We want them to know that they matter, that they deserve the same kind of birthday a kid not in their circumstances would have,” said Melody Finn, director of operations for River City Church.

The church just north of Clark College on Fourth Plain Boulevard looks more like an event space than a church, which seems fitting because Pastor Ryan Sidhom and the church don’t fit a traditional church model. On the second Sunday of each month, they cancel the worship service and complete a service project. In February, for example, they’re making Valentine’s Day cards for veterans, penning hand-written notes for those in the nearby Veterans Affairs hospital.

About 35 people signed up, and Sidhom expected the event to last from 9 a.m. to after noon, but more than 65 volunteers turned out, and by 10 a.m., the group had assembled the kits and double-checked them to make sure they featured enough treats.

By the time volunteers filtered out, 15 more volunteers had shown up looking to help.

“More than half of the volunteers that showed up I didn’t even know,” Sidhom said with a faint Southern accent. “… I think that represents a desire for authenticity.”

No religious iconography, gifts, handouts or notes are left in the bags to tie them back to River City.

Handing them out is a bit of a guessing game. River City was provided the number of students in foster care or experiencing homelessness in the district and their ages and sexes, but church officials don’t know the numbers at individual schools or their names, according to Sidhom.

On Monday, church leaders will go from school to school and distribute the kits to each school’s family community resource coordinator, referred to as FCRC. Vancouver Public Schools has 21 elementary schools. For schools without FCRCs, the district will handle distribution.

For students in middle and high school, bags feature birthday greetings and a gift card to stores, including Walmart.

The framework for the birthday kit drive was developed in late 2022 when the Harney Elementary FCRC organized a birthday kit drive to which River City Church assembled and donated more than 30 kits.

This month’s effort represented a sizable expansion: Three hundred kits were assembled, up from 30 just a few months ago, Sidhom said.

One of Saturday’s volunteers — Jerry Buchanan, who started attending the church in November with his wife after they helped served people Thanksgiving meals — explained the meaning of the work.

“It’s putting legs on your faith,” he said.

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Columbian staff writer