It started with one cake made from scratch and gifts bought with her babysitting money. Now Hannah Finn's One Wish Project is on the way to providing happy birthdays to more than 250 children.
From its humble beginning with that single cake, the project is embarking on making birthdays special this year for hundreds of kids identified by the state Department of Children and Families and the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, Finn said.
"We started this with 10 kids,'' she said of the first birthday parties her group made possible, "and with the community's donations we've been able to grow to 250 kids — and that's not going to stop growing."
Finn started the One Wish Project because birthdays were special in her Andover family and she wanted other children to experience the joy of such celebrations. When she was 14 years old in 2017, Hannah baked a cake from scratch one day and bought toys for a 9-year-old child who was living at the Lazarus House homeless shelter in Lawrence. The One Wish Project was born.
Finn is now 18 and a freshman at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. She keeps the One Wish Project running with the help of her family and a network of volunteers.
The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council reached out to Finn because it wanted to help children celebrate their birthdays, said Annmary Connor, director of social services at the council.
"Through these efforts, we will be able to support families in bringing the purest of joy to children in the celebration of their birthday," Connor said about working with One Wish Project. "We support families in providing the true wish that their children hope for, while promoting the family bonds and memories to last a lifetime.''
As the One Wish Project grows, so does the need for more donations, Finn said. Donations from the community continue to pour in, and now corporate sponsors are joining the cause. The Andover-based business Main Street Reps, owned by Tammy Johnston of Andover, was the first to sign on. The store T.J.Maxx has also started sponsoring birthdays, Finn said.
Privacy policies prevent Finn from seeing children at the shelter who receive cakes and gifts from her organization, but Lazarus House program director Carmen Vega described the joy shared by the kids and their parents. At the beginning of each month, One Wish Project asks if there are any children at the shelter with birthdays coming up. If the answer is yes, the shelter's staff collects information such as the child's favorite color, which influence how the birthday cake is decorated. The staff also tells One Wish Project what gifts the child hopes to receive.
When the child's family receives the cake and gifts, a celebration follows that is "so special for them there are no words," Vega said.
"To see there are still people like that in the world where they ... bring the joy and make the child feel so special is amazing to me," she said of the work of One Wish Project members.
As friends and neighbors got word of Finn's project, they began donating toys for children at the shelter. That allowed Finn to say yes when La Casa Nueva Vida, another homeless shelter in Lawrence, asked if she could expand to help that shelter, which houses about 60 children a year.
Finn recalls one mother being elated as her son enjoyed a cake and gifts. The woman thanked Finn, saying, "You did for my son what I couldn't do." Those words have stuck with Finn.
As she was approaching college, Finn agreed to help more shelters. She also created a network of volunteers to deliver birthday cakes. People can apply to volunteer by going to "sponsor a birthday" on the One Wish Project website. Once accepted into Finn's group, a volunteer makes or buys a cake and brings it to the shelter along with gifts provided by the One Wish Project.
Finn said she has about 70 active volunteers working with her organization.
Finn's advice to anyone who wants to get involved with her organization or any other volunteer group: "You are never too young to do something kind." Whether it's holding a door or baking a cake, people of all ages can make a difference and spread kindness with whatever talents they have, she said.
Inspired by Finn's story, a Methuen man has put his woodworking skills to use for the shelter.
"Wes Heflin, a big-hearted Methuen resident, got in touch with us to offer his hand-made wooden toys," Finn said. "He still makes toys each Christmas for the children in our Project Bethlehem."
As Finn studies communications at Quinnipiac University, her mother organizes One Wish Project volunteers while Finn is away. Her mom does not bake — the creativity was always Finn's strength — but she has helped with the logistics since the start of the program, first driving around her young daughter and now helping the group stay organized.
More information about the One Wish Project and how to get involved is available at onewishproject.us.