Fazana Saleem-Ismail believes everybody deserves the chance to celebrate his or her birthday in a big way.

The Albany resident created her own foundation, Jazzy Sun Birthdays, to provide parties, gifts and birthday love to homeless children in the Capital Region.

The idea for Jazzy Sun Birthdays was formed about three years ago when Fazana was volunteering at a soup kitchen. Other volunteers began to sing "Happy Birthday" to one of the children receiving a meal and Fazana was inspired to do more for homeless children celebrating birthdays.

Through her organization, Fazana has put smiles on the faces of more than 100 local children, going out of her way to buy the kids special gifts and even honor birthday themes, like Betty Boop and Spiderman.

"Not only does Fazana positively impact the lives of all of the homeless children who now have a brighter, special day, but she also, and perhaps she's unaware, positively impacts the lives of volunteers who are honored to give of themselves to her amazing cause," the person who nominated her wrote.

As part of the “Hometown Heroes” series, we’ve partnered with County Waste, Latham Ford, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region and Awards by Walsh to celebrate local unsung heroes for their good deeds and honorable work.

We asked Fazana a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: What inspired you to create Jazzy Sun Birthdays?

A: Before I had my children, I worked as a program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation, a grant-making organization that fights poverty in New York City.  On a site visit to a soup kitchen, I was told that if a child came to eat there on his/her birthday, that the staff and volunteers would sing a rousing "Happy Birthday" to him/her.  The thought of a child dining at a soup kitchen on his/her birthday haunted me for years and planted the seed for my desire to assist homeless children in some unique yet meaningful way.

After becoming a mother, I began planning and hosting birthday parties for my children (often on a tight budget).  After watching them frolic happily during each party, I knew that I wanted to replicate that experience for children whose lives are in a state of flux. There is a lot of focus on homeless children during the holidays in December but a birthday is a very special day for any child because it is the day he/she entered the world.

I believe that allowing homeless children to experience some of the simple joys of childhood is important. Giving a child a birthday party may not be poverty-fighting, but it is smile-producing! The guests of honor at our parties know first-hand what it is like not to have a roof over their heads and possibly have had their parents struggle to figure out the source of their next meals. By celebrating their birthdays with cake, decorations, games, presents and goody bags in themes of their choice, we try to make each and every one of them feel like kings and queens for a day.

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about what you do?

A: To be frank, there are MANY aspects of the project that I consider rewarding.  Seeing the faces of children absolutely light up when they see a themed cake made especially for them or when they open gifts that they may not have expected to receive is priceless.  Hearing a child exclaim, "This is the best gift EVER!" or having a mother quietly thank my team for making her child's birthday dreams come true is music to my ears.

In addition, the ability to connect with so many wonderful, generous people throughout the Capital Region has been such a blessing!  Since almost everyone can appreciate the importance of a birthday to a child, I am fortunate to receive a lot of support. The beauty of this project is that it offers a multitude of ways people can get involved and feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way.  Talented bakers have made beautiful cakes free of charge; groups of school children have created personalized banners, cards and buttons for birthday celebrants; church youth groups have made special gift bags and donated their Halloween candy; parents have donated leftover party supplies from their own children's parties; and Girl Scout troops, church groups, sororities and clubs from local universities, groups of teachers, the Junior League of Albany and members of the Tulip Court have all volunteered during parties.

Finally, it makes me proud to hear that the project is helping children to gain an awareness of the types of challenges low-income children face and to develop sensitivity to the needs of others. I have had a number of parents tell me that the concept of poverty becomes real to their children when it is explained to them that although birthday parties are commonplace in their lives, that for homeless children, parties are a luxury many cannot afford.  When young people volunteer at our parties, they realize that homeless children are just like them in many ways and have similar needs.  It fills me with warmth to watch our youth volunteers bond with shelter residents and work hard to make the parties extra special for them.

Q: What are some challenges?

A: One of the major challenges I face is the lack of time to do all of the things I would like to do for Jazzy Sun Birthdays. Although I am fortunate to have so many people helping me with various aspects of the project, I am solely responsible for administrative functions such as fundraising, coordination of donations of products and services for parties, marketing, volunteer recruitment and coordination, public relations, inventory control, correspondence, project expansion and website development. Before I re-entered the paid workforce, finding time to do these tasks was challenging enough but now that I am working outside the home and my children are older and involved in after-school activities, time has become even scarcer. I would love to expand Jazzy Sun Birthdays to additional shelters but would likely need volunteers to serve as shelter coordinators in order to do so.

Q: Do you consider yourself a "hero?" Why or why not.

A: No, I don't consider myself a "hero" because I generally use this word to describe people who help others in the face of great personal risk. I have been described as someone who inspires and motivates people to take the time to help others, but I don’t think that doing this makes me a hero. I am just trying to do my part to make the world a better place. I have been raised to not only count my blessings but to share them with others. Having been blessed with so much in life and having always had an acute awareness of the needs of those around me, I'm just doing what I believe I was meant to do.  As a child, I always looked forward to my birthday because it was MY day.  As an adult, I want to ensure that children who are going through a tough time know that despite their financial circumstances, caring people in the community think that they are important and worth celebrating.

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