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Ford Dream Builders students celebrate foster youth with birthday cheers

Everyone deserves to feel special on their birthday, especially young children who may not have family members to throw grand celebrations every year.

A group of high-achieving high schoolers selected for the Ford Dimension and Dream Builders program has made it their mission to have the community help create birthday cards and celebrate local foster and homeless youth.

Each spring, the Jim Burke Education Foundation accepts 32 high school juniors to participate in the program. Students are split up into four teams and they gain leadership, career and life skills as they create and implement service projects that meet a community need. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, made meeting up and working on projects together a bit trickier.

Team Dignity Health, made up of seniors Ishaan Brar and Monika McKenna from Stockdale and Bakersfield high schools, respectively, and six other seniors, were encouraged to think about joy when coming up with project ideas, McKenna explained. After a year of hardship and sadness due to the pandemic, doing something uplifting for the community would be a chance to end the year on a brighter note.

The students decided one of the most personalized projects they could take on was celebrating birthdays, aptly naming the endeavor Celebrating You(th)!

"We realized that here in our community, especially for youth and youth programs, the focus is always on holidays. Whether it's a Christmas gift, Christmas meal, maybe Halloween or doing something for Easter, but the one thing that is the hardest to tackle is birthdays," McKenna said. "Even just the slightest recognition of you having someone say happy birthday to you always makes you feel so much more important and valued in the community."

The group has teamed up with various local foster programs and organizations, such as The Mission at Kern County, Jamison Children's Center, Victory Family Services, Aspiranet, Foster Children Safe Haven, Youth Connection and Pathway Family Services. There are 308 children in these organizations, Brar said, and the hope is that each one receives at minimum three birthday cards.

The long-term goal is to create 1,000 handmade cards with community support. Initially, the team planned to hold several in-person, socially distanced events, such as one in November at the Panorama Bluffs. Around 386 cards were made in just a few hours.

"When we called people to see if they wanted to make a card, they initially were like, 'Oh I'll make one card,' but they often end up making 10, 12 cards because it's the joy of being creative and helping a kid celebrate their birthday," Brar said.

Cards are decked out in various colors, stickers and messages that hope to convey to foster children that they're important and celebrated on their special day and beyond. Children also receive a goodie bag filled with treats. 

McKenna said the team has received pictures of children with their cards and gifts and their joy was unmistakable. 

Due to another uptick in COVID-19 cases, Team Dignity Health has switched gears and is focused on delivering community card boxes full of supplies to local businesses so that community members can continue to contribute. 

Individuals at home can also take part — all that's needed is colored cardstock, coloring utensils and something to write with.

Those interested in participating can contact Jim Burke Ford Education Foundation Director of Student Leadership Katie Werdel at 328-3622, or by messaging @celebratingyou_th on Instagram.

"For a kid who normally might not have parents who can afford to do something for them or have the support that a lot of other kids have with family members, when you know that someone else out there is thinking about you and taking you into consideration, it's such a powerful moment for the child," McKenna said. She added the project has given her and her teammates the chance to connect with individuals who were once foster youth themselves and share their stories, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of their project's importance.

Once their time in the Ford Dimension and Dream Builders program has wrapped up, the team hopes to see the birthday cheer continue. Students are in talks with the National Honor Society at various high schools, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Boy Scout troops to pass on the reigns.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.