When Elaine Brown retired in 2015, she wanted to make a difference in her community by volunteering. Over the next few years, she would touch the lives of hundreds of children in need from across Cobb County.
“Elaine spends countless hours in our warehouse—every Saturday and often several days during the week—putting together nearly all the birthdays for our My Birthday Matters program,” said Brenda Rhodes, SNGA founder and president. “Without Elaine, My Birthday Matters could never have grown as quickly as it has. Last year, we brought presents and other useful items to more than 260 children who were either homeless or whose families had come to us for help with furniture and household items.”
Elaine, who lives in East Cobb with her husband Zack and has two children and six grandchildren, advises Brenda of items needed in inventory and meticulously pulls the right toys, blankets, stuffed animals, underwear, socks, books and other items for each child. On occasion, she shops for specific, top-priority items described by the kids.
More often than not, Elaine wraps all the presents herself. “I found out about two months ago that Elaine doesn’t even like to wrap,” Brenda said, “and yet she has wrapped countless numbers of gifts and books!” (Elaine jokes that she sees wrapping presents as a form of penance.)
Longtime SNGA volunteer Stacy “Mac” McIlwain has been impressed with the care that Elaine puts into every birthday she assembles, as well as her willingness to give freely of her time. “There are weeks when five or more birthdays are waiting for Elaine to do her magic,” Mac said. “I don’t know how she does it. She has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know.”
Over the years, Elaine has also inspired other volunteers to put just as much care and love into the process. “I’ve worked with Elaine many times on birthdays, and she has taught me everything I know about how to put them together,” said Debbie Lampe, a frequent SNGA volunteer. “She is so dedicated to her task. Elaine wants every child’s birthday to be special.”
Among the advice Elaine gave to Debbie—treat every birthday as if it were for your own child.
The daughter of a Naval officer, Elaine learned about giving back from her mother, Marie Bashaw, whom she describes as a “super volunteer” who was deeply committed to causes such as literacy and services for the blind.
Elaine started volunteering for SNGA in June 2016 after retiring from her job at an accounting software firm. She spent the bulk of her career working for The Prudential in Atlanta as a real estate accountant.
She chose SNGA because the services it offered were much needed in the community. “Some other nonprofits that I looked at were solid, good charities, but I felt like they were duplicating what others were already doing.”
While Elaine never expected to spend so much time volunteering, she says that bringing joy to children in need has been a powerful motivator.
“I just cannot express what it is like to do for the children,” she said. “After I delivered the first birthday to a family years ago, I backed out of their driveway, came to a stop sign and pulled over in tears. I couldn’t fathom the needs of those children and their parents. Before I had even taken the bag out of the car, they wanted to hug and kiss me. We often don’t realize what other people are going through.”
Being a part of the rapid growth of My Birthday Matters has also been satisfying. The program, which launched in May 2013, was the brainchild of a former SNGA board member whose parents were so poor they often ignored her birthday. “My Birthday Matters gives the children an uplift,” Elaine said. “It shows them that they are important and that they count.”