In the basement of Jennifer Savino’s tidy, spacious North Side home across from Cherokee Lake is the birthday room.
Shelves are bursting with dozens of toys: A Hello Kitty’s schoolhouse, a Lego kit, a Cra-Z-Art sparkle treasure jewelry box, a Disney baby Tiana, a soccer ball, a Melissa and Doug magnetic dress-up doll, a Rubik’s cube.
A counter is lined with wrapping paper, bows, party hats and candles.
At the YWCA Madison, Savino, 47, is better known as “The Birthday Lady.” For the past year and a half, she has been providing birthday parties for children who otherwise wouldn’t have much in the way of a celebration.
Savino, co-owner of a local advertising agency, said her mom grew up poor, one of 11 children, and told Savino that she always dreaded her birthday.
“It was always a reminder of how poor they were,” Savino said.
Her mom would go to school and make up gifts that she said she got for her birthday.
Then a couple of years ago, when Savino was telling the story to a woman at work, that woman started to cry, confiding that it had been the same for her.
“Here’s a woman in her 40s, and my mom, in her 70s, and what an impact this had on their whole lives,” Savino said.
“That’s basically the seed of the idea — to give kids a birthday party at a time when their family wouldn’t be able to support one,” she said.
She called the YWCA because it provides temporary shelter and other services to families in need, and they were immediately receptive to the idea.
Jenny Hanson, the YWCA’s shelter case manager, provides Savino with a list of birth dates and ages of the children who are staying at the 90-day shelter. She never sees the names or meets the families.
“I’ve had so many parents tell me that they are so grateful,” Hanson said.
“Often they just say, ‘I don’t know what I would’ve done,’ ” she said. “That on top of being homeless and looking for employment, and income and housing. Trying to make a birthday special is really a challenge in terms of time and resources.”
Before “The Birthday Lady” came along, some families would buy their own presents, cake and other birthday trappings, “but they would feel the consequences,” Hanson said. “You’d have to sacrifice one thing for another thing, basically.”
In April, Savino won a Jefferson Award, a national award for volunteerism and public service given on a regional level and administered monthly through WKOW-TV. Hanson nominated her.
“It was a nice honor. I was kind of humbled by it,” Savino said.
A divorced mother of two boys — Egan, 10, and Cam, 7 — Savino gets her children in on the act by taking them shopping for birthday gifts for children they’ve never met and never will meet.
“I talk about this a lot to them because I want them to understand how fortunate they are,” Savino said. “I want them to understand and empathize with kids their own ages.”
Both boys say they enjoy helping, even if it means picking out Barbies for the opposite sex. “It feels really good, just to share stuff with people who don’t even have a home,” Egan said.
Each birthday costs Savino between $75 and $100, and she does between two and six a month, depending on when the birthdays fall. Metcalfe’s Market recently started supplying her with cakes, and friends and family often give her new toys to pass on.
The “birthday box” Savino prepares for each recipient consists of two or three age-appropriate wrapped gifts, a book, a stuffed animal, a cake, candles and party supplies like plates, napkins, a table cloth, paper hats, noisemakers and balloons.
Hanson said Savino often drops off the box before 8 a.m., and always with a smile.
“It’s just really kind of amazing that she gets pleasure out of it,” Hanson said. “She doesn’t actually get to be thanked directly necessarily by the children and by the parents, so it’s just really, really neat that she’s been doing this for so long. It’s pretty altruistic.”