South Charlotte

Volunteers can send a personal message

Bright Blessings, a Matthews nonprofit that serves homeless children, is getting more personal through its new program, Heart to Heart.

For a $10 donation, participants can build a personalized bucket filled with items to be sent to a homeless child for their birthday. Participants decorate the bucket and pick items to fill it from one of nine themes, ranging from "Wee Wonders," with items for toddlers, to "Beauty and Bling" for teenage girls and "Game On!" for boys.

Each bucket also contains a card that reads "Happy Birthday, from my heart to yours," and is signed with the participant's name.

Terri Springer, program manager at Bright Blessings since 2008, said it was volunteers who had the idea for the new program.

"They kept saying they wanted a way to have a more personal connection with the children," said Springer. "Having our volunteers personally decorate their bucket and handpick the items that go in make it special. But it's the card that really makes it personal, because it's hand-signed."

The nonprofit has two central programs, Bless-A-Birthday and Bless-A-Baby, which each provide essential items for homeless children and newborns.

For the children's birthdays, the nonprofit provides a meal, cake and juice, party activities and goodie bags for every child at the homeless shelter. The child celebrating a birthday also gets three gifts.

"Some of these children have never celebrated a birthday and are so grateful," said Springer. "Their parents are thankful someone can provide for their child, even when they can't. It can be hard, but they are happy for their children."

The Bless-A-Baby program provides a laundry basket with essential items a newborn needs, including a pack of diapers, wipes, a hooded towel and several other items. The nonprofit creates the baskets when one of the shelters calls to let them know a mother and newborn have checked in.

The Heart to Heart program works with Bless-A-Birthday. Each bucket is created for a child celebrating a birthday and is delivered along with the gifts. The program began in late May and will run year round. Volunteers have created 15 buckets so far.

Crystal Kirton and her two children, Savannah, 11, and Braxton, 9, were among the first to participate in the Heart to Heart program. Kirton, who lives in Weddington, said she first volunteered with Bless-A-Baby and wanted to bring her children to volunteer as well.

"They do a lot of volunteering and love participating in things that aren't just about themselves," said Kirton. "It was really rewarding for them, knowing something they created was going to another child their age."

Kirton said Braxton enjoyed volunteering so much he asked to come back the next day to make another bucket.

"I will definitely bring them back," said Kirton. "I'd like to start volunteering here at least once or twice a month."

Kirton said volunteering with Heart to Heart was emotional for her.

"Having children of my own, it breaks my heart to think there are other children out there literally living under bridges," said Kirton. "I'll do anything humanly possible to help."

The nonprofit - formerly Birthday Blessings - was founded in 2005 by Amy and John Cervantes. They operated out of their home office and served the children of the Salvation Army Center of Hope.

The organization has grown to serve 15 homeless shelters in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, York and Union counties. It also has moved a larger location in Matthews due to the growing number of children it serves.

In 2010, Bright Blessings provided services to 2,500 children.

"It's incredible how fast we've grown," said Springer. "We are completely dependent on our volunteers, donations and grants, and none of this would be possible without them."