Jessica entered residential care at Canopy Children’s Solutions on her sixth birthday. She arrived in a little tiara carrying a few loving tokens given by her foster family. She was not afraid but rather curious as she took in the room asking only one question, “Will I have a birthday?” What seemed like an odd question at first had a deafening tone as the reality of Jessica’s history set in. She is a child who has never been celebrated, but rather suffered unimaginable physical, emotional and verbal abuse by those who “loved” her.
During her first child and family team meeting, the topic of Jessica’s birthday came up once again. The team explain how she would be included in the group party the Auxiliary would host the following month. Jessica nodded in acknowledgment and quietly hung her head. Noticing something was still on her mind, her therapist, Ms. Lisa, took her aside. Jessica whispered sadly into Ms. Lisa’s ear, “I just really wanted a birthday of my own. I’ve never had one before.” She wrapped Jessica tightly in her arms and exclaimed, “We will make sure you have a birthday party!” Jessica went on to share a vivid and heart wrenching description of past birthdays that brought tears to the staff’s eyes.
“It was the most heartbreaking thing,” said Ms. Lisa. “The more we learned about her past, the more upsetting it was. This precious baby; there was no way we could not give her a party!”
As Jessica left the room, the team quickly took to creating a special day for her, each determined she would not go another birthday without feeling loved. The entire children’s staff, including nurses, therapists, case workers, milieu coordinators and residential care specialists, came together to purchase decorations, gifts, brightly colored cupcakes, balloons and snacks for the occasion—everything they needed to make Jessica “Princess for a Day.”
The staff also included the other children from the children’s cottage in helping plan the festivities. During the cottage group session, which includes the residents ages 6-11, therapists asked the children what was their favorite part of having a birthday. As each child shared, staff jotted down ideas of how to make Jessica’s party fun and exciting. They explained to the children how their new friend Jessica had never had a birthday party before and how wonderful it would be for them to help make her day special. The children, who at that age are typically very “me” centric, were enthusiastic about creating a memorable experience for Jessica. Each child decorated a birthday card with special messages of love and encouragement to be given during the party.
The day of the event, Canopy maintenance technicians and other staff worked diligently to transform the cafeteria into a palace fit for a princess. The technicians hung streamers from the ceiling and blew up balloons, while others decorated tables and wrapped gifts.
“One of the staff members from the cottage came and asked for a ladder,” said Bryan, one of the maintenance staff. “When we asked what they needed it for, they told us a little about Jessica’s story and how they were throwing a party for her. They didn’t ask us, but we stopped what we were doing to go help out. We don’t work with the kids a whole lot, but that was something we could do.”
Putting aside a list of job duties that needed attention, each staff member patiently worked to ensure every detail was in order to bring joy to Jessica. Some staff came in during their time off to pitch in and take part in the celebration.
“I hate for anyone to go through what [Jessica] did, so we wanted to help make it special,” added Travis, who also works on the maintenance team. “We hung streamers and made sure everything was perfect, that it looked perfect.”
“When you work for a place like Canopy, it isn’t about you. It’s about the kids and finding how you can make a difference for them.”–Travis
With the scene set, the party-goers waited excitedly for Jessica to arrive. With a boisterous “SURPRISE!” the celebration began. Startled at first, Jessica relaxed and gave her biggest smile as the group serenaded her with the “Happy Birthday” song. At one point she asked, “So, what do you do at a birthday party?” With a big smile, staff guided Jessica to the snack table to pick out her very first cupcake. Her seat was adorned with a silver princess crown and decorated with colorful balloons (which she had also never seen before). She was introduced to Cheetos® for the first time and showed off her moves on the dance floor. Nearly every experience was new and exciting, making the party as much fun for the honored guest as it was for the attendees.
“It was an honor for me, as well as other Canopy staff, to be able to throw a birthday party for a child that has had so little in her lifetime,” said Rachel, one of the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. “To be able to have the other kids excited to participate in her very first birthday party was an awesome experience.”
Seeing Jessica delight in her first birthday experience was worth more than money can buy. Staff, as well as complete strangers, gave of themselves to lavish Jessica with dolls, books, and her personal favorite, a princess jewelry set. More than the material items, they gave her hope that the world is not such a terrifying and hurtful place. For the first time ever, Jessica found what it was truly like to be loved.
Healing a broken spirit is much harder than fixing a physical wound. These emotional injuries are delicate—they cannot be shielded with a cast or held together with stitches. They are overcome by resiliency developed from the careful guidance and encouragement of someone who truly believes in the power of transformation. That is what makes Canopy so special.