Boxes give children real birthday surprise


For some children the idea of blowing out candles and eating birthday cake is only a dream, but the Big Blue Birthday Box makes this a reality. 

While Nick Wendell was planning a birthday party for his daughter, Amelia, he came up with the idea for the Big Blue Birthday Box. 

 For children in need in Brookings County, they have an opportunity to receive a big, blue birthday box. Inside each box is a birthday cake, plates, napkins and a present, all put in a printed blue box with a balloon coming out of it. 

The box is delivered on the child’s birthday, so they can celebrate with their family. All of these items are donated by area businesses such as Clean Slate, Hy-Vee, Party Depot and First Bank and Trust.

Wendell, the director of student engagement at South Dakota State, realized the reality of how quickly items added up while he planned his daughter’s birthday party. 

“As we were planning the cupcakes and the decorations and the games and the gifts and the invitations, it really struck me how expensive a birthday party can be,” Wendell said. “I was thinking about how challenging it would be to find yourself in a position as a parent to not be able to give your kid a birthday party, and that stuck with me for a while.”

 A year later, Wendell began to speak up about the concept of the Big Blue Birthday Box. He said people were supportive of the idea. It was then decided he would launch the project January 2015.

Wendell originally thought the project would require about 50 to 75 boxes. In 2015, the project delivered 368 boxes. Even though the project grew larger than intended, the donors kept contributing.

 The Big Blue Birthday Box is a message that hit home for Cheryl Meyer, the owner of Party Depot.

 “You should celebrate birthdays whether you spend a lot of money or not,” Meyer said.

 Growing up as a child, Meyer said her family did not have much, but she always had a birthday party surrounded by her friends and family and a homemade cake from her mother. 

The Party Depot donates plates, napkins, forks and a “Happy Birthday” balloon for every box. She said they try to accommodate the child’s interest when putting the supplies in the box. Despite the large number of boxes, Meyer said she is still willing to donate.

 Monetary donations go toward purchasing gifts put inside each big, blue birthday box. Each family provides a wish list for the child’s birthday with about a $20 budget. Wendell then purchases the gifts personally to include in the box.

However, some items on the wish list weren’t typical items children wanted on their birthday. Wendell said that on the lists he was receiving from families, some asked for books and socks, putting children’s needs before wants on their birthday. Now, inside of every big, blue birthday box are socks and books, in part of donations from area churches.

 “The box keeps getting fuller,” Wendell said.

 Aside from purchasing, gathering and assembling the big, blue birthday box and its contents, each box gets delivered to the child’s home.

Brady Diveley, philanthropy chair for Sigma Phi Epsilon, and his fraternity brothers help Wendell deliver the boxes.

Diveley meets with Wendell at the beginning of each month and determines dates that the fraternity can help deliver. They help deliver about ten boxes each month between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. on each designated date. Dievely said each time he steps up to deliver a surprise big, blue birthday box to a child, he gets a warm feeling.

 “I am scared that I don’t want to get caught [delivering the surprise],” Diveley said. “[We are] really appreciative for what we have. Everyone deserves a present.”

There are no specific qualifications to receive a Big Blue Birthday Box. Most families find out about the program from social services, and through area programs such as the Backpack program, Project Joy and the Harvest Table.

Wendell said there are an estimated 700 children who use the local backpack program, showing that there is a need beyond the 368 boxes delivered in the last year. 

The Big Blue Birthday Box has reached children in Brookings, Elkton, Bruce, Volga and even as far as Hendricks, Minnesota. Wendell said he has not encountered an instance where a child did not need a big, blue birthday box.

 “To me, at the end of the day, if a seven-year-old has a cake in front of him and a gift to unwrap and a balloon bouncing above his head, we have done our job,” Wendell said.