Banners hung all around, decorating the rooftop space. Lights flashed and music played loudly, the bass trembling. The tall buildings of downtown LA loomed in the near distance, their tops hidden in a thick layer of clouds blanketing the night sky.
It was February and the air was a chilly 60 degrees, but the children and their parents stepping out onto the roof and didn’t seem to notice. Most were coming where they live, just a few floors below — in the Union Rescue Mission Homeless Shelter, the only homeless shelter in downtown’s Skid Row that houses children.
“There’s a big turtle, look! Come!” one boy shouted as he arrived on the rooftop, running to a small animal enclosure that held a tortoise and a python.
The scene was a birthday party, but not a yearly one. A non-profit organization called “Worthy of Love” has been hosting it on the last Thursday of every month for kids with that month’s birthdays, all of them homeless children who live in the shelter.
This time, they were joined by members of Shalhevet’s Hope For Humanity club. On Feb. 28, 23 students and two faculty members took a bus downtown to volunteer.
They greeted the kids and their families as they arrived, offering headpieces and light-up jewelry. Then they worked various booths, including a bracelet-making table, a glitter tattoo table, and gardening beds where fresh soil had been brought in.
And everybody danced, including a costumed character of Poppy from the animated children’s movie Trolls.
Gabby Lasry, who started Shalhevet’s Hope for Humanity club along with her fellow junior Caroline Edry, said the dancing was a highlight for her, even though she was hesitant about it at first.
“I started laughing and some of the kids looked at me and started laughing too,” Gabby said.
“And they pushed me to the dance floor and they said, ‘Come we’ll dance with you.’ And to me it was so beautiful that they didn’t even know me, and the fact that they cared to make sure that I had a good time was pretty amazing.”
The whole experience just changed my perspective on things, and like woke me up. Obviously you know in the back of your head that this stuff does exist but like you really need to see it for it to impact you.”
— Maya Shapira, 11th grade
Shalhevet sophomore Josh Harrison led planting in the gardening beds — and also danced.
“I had this little kid I was hanging out with all time he was so cute and he was amazing,” Josh said. “He had the best time ever — he was happy the whole time and he always wanted to dance.”
Maya Shapira, another student volunteer, said driving to the shelter and seeing the tents of homeless people gave was memorable in itself.
“We all never see that kind of stuff, and the whole experience just changed my perspective on things, and like woke me up,” Maya said.
“Obviously you know in the back of your head that this stuff does exist, but you really need to see it for it to impact you.”
A 2018 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that there were 2,473 minors who were part of family units living in shelters. An additional 491 children were found to be unsheltered.
Mary Davis, who started Worthy of Love with her husband Ari in 2013, said that when the charity first began hosting these parties, only 15 kids lived at the shelter, but in the years since that number has increased to 200.
So has the number of birthday party volunteers. Now, Worthy of Love has to turn some away due to limited space on the rooftop.
“We’re here tonight to celebrate the lives of over 200 children here,” Mrs. Davis told the volunteers before the party began. “You guys, some of these kids have never even had a birthday party. Can you imagine that? But we’re here tonight to make dreams come true.”
The dance floor stayed busy with songs like Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow.” There was also a group-wide singing of “Happy Birthday,” with some of the lyrics changed to “happy birthday to everybody.”
Towards the end of the party, volunteers, children and parents wearing balloon hats and flashing headpieces joined hands and walked in a circle, swaying to Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”
When the party was over, Mrs. Davis called the volunteers into a circle.
“Tonight, when the families go downstairs and their heads hit the pillows, they’re going to remember this night.” Mrs. Davis said. “And they’re going to remember that we looked to the left, looked to the right, and said, ‘You are worthy of love’,” she said, referencing an earlier event during the evening.
The Davises started the organization after a family tragedy.
“My husband and I suffered a miscarriage and we couldn’t throw a birthday party for our child,” she said, “so we decided to do it for kids that don’t get birthday parties.”
On the bus back to school, Gabby stood up and said the evening had sanctified God’s name in the world.
“It was a huge kiddush Hashem,” Gabby said.
She said she hopes that the club can come again, but there are many groups volunteering and it’s hard to secure a spot. She recommended students try on their own.
“If they can’t have 30 volunteers,” she said, “I hope individuals will reach out to Worthy of Love and volunteer with them.”