Most 5-year-old boys get Power Rangers, soccer balls or video games for their birthdays. Eric Klingberg got food - and lots of it.
Eric and his friends, Michael Berg, Ashlee Hall and Cameron Modisett, collected two giant tubs of non-perishable food items for the Jewish Community Center's Project Isaiah at their joint birthday party Sept. 29. Food collected included Matzo ball mix, pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, refried beans, cake mixes and oatmeal.
Project Isaiah is the annual High Holy Days hunger project of the JCC benefiting the Tucson Community Food Bank. From Sept. 6 through Oct. 6, local synagogues, agencies and "Project Isaiah partners" collect non-perishables to distribute to the food bank in October, according to Jill Rosenzweig, director of the early childhood education program at the JCC.
The Halls and Klingbergs live in the Northwest, while the Berg family lives near Catalina Foothills and the Modisetts live in central Tucson. They connected through the JCC where their children all attended preschool. The birthday party was conceived from that alliance three years ago.
"Cindy and I first got the idea because we decided it was a little funny to ask people to bring presents to your kid just to come to a party," said Ro Berg, 36. "What do they need with more stuff? We wanted to teach the kids about someone other than themselves. And with this kind of party, the emphasis becomes less on presents and more on fun, more on community building"
Berg and Klingberg got to know each other "because our kids were the first at the JCC to be dropped off and the last to be picked up, so we were there at the same time," Berg said. They discovered their boys' birthdays were just days apart - Eric's is Sept. 29 and Michael's is Oct. 2 - and decided on a joint party for their second birthday.
The next year they added Cameron to the mix, and this year, Ashlee's mom asked if her daughter's birthday could be included. Both Cameron and Ashlee have Sept. 29 birthdays.
In keeping with tradition, this year's party guests were asked to forgo traditional presents and bring food to share with the less fortunate.
None of the nearly 40 children attending the party at Mehl Park looked worse for wear due to the lack of customary gifts: They played on the park's jungle gym, wrestled in a rented jumping castle and stood in two fairly orderly lines to take turns swinging plastic bats at two pinatas.
The hosting parents split the cost of the parties among themselves, Klingberg said, deciding each year what they might like to do. This year's costs included rental of the park, a jumping castle, pinatas and cake mix for the cupcakes.
Ashlee's mother, Melissa Hall, said the idea of "giving back" is important to her because of her Jewish faith. She is the event coordinator for the Jewish Community Foundation, the charitable giving and endowment arm of the JCC.
"There is a tradition in Judaism, it is basically treating others as you would be treated," she explained. "I know that if I was in a bad place, I would want someone to help me out, so I need to help others that way as well. And I want my children to grow up knowing that."
Ashlee, huddled with a friend near a slide discussing the intricacies of playing house - "You'll go to work and I'll be the daddy and go somewhere else" - said she was having a good time at her sans-presents party.
"I like my friends," she said, hiding her face behind her doll. "My mommy told me about coming here and we bring foods to poor people."
Eric confirmed Ashlee's assessment of the birthday. When asked why he got food for his birthday instead of more traditional fare, he said matter-of-factly, "Because the poor need some."
His older sister, Madison, has had two birthdays where she asked for non-traditional gifts. When she turned 6, she asked guests to sponsor her on a walk to fight breast cancer and last February, at her seventh birthday, she asked guests to bring books to be donated to Casa de Los Ninos.
"I have a lot of toys already," Madison said. "I think it's funner doing it this way because then you don't have to be surprised at your presents. You just have fun. Some of my friends say they wouldn't want to do it at their parties, because they like getting presents. But I just kind of care for the poor. Did you know that some people have no food?"
Klingberg, a project engineer at Raytheon, said this idea isn't for everyone, and if her children decide they no longer want to do charitable birthdays, "We would honor that and have a small celebration at home. But right now, this works and it feels right."
The JCC staff appreciates the efforts the mothers are making to help Project Isaiah, Rosenzweig said.
"It's a worthwhile idea for children at this age to start thinking about the needs of others," she explained in a telephone interview. "While it is perfectly normal for 5-year-olds to be egocentric, it is certainly not too early to help them to begin to develop a concern for others and develop empathy for others."
Yet Berg cautioned against anyone "thinking we are a bunch of saints for doing this."
"It is important to do this to help others, but it is just as important to do it to form community, to get to know each other as parents and for the kids to share and have a good time," the pediatric oncologist explained.
In this group of working-parent families, there is a practical element to this kind of party as well, said Garrett Hall, Ashlee's father.
"This is frankly easier on the parents to have the parties all together where everyone can come - you aren't running to four different parties in four days," he said. "And to be able to collect something to give away - this is an 'everybody wins' situation."
While some might assume that a birthday party without gifts is cruel to children, the parents involved dismissed that.
"These kids are very fortunate in their lives," said Susan Modisett, 38. "They are privileged. We are thankful for what we do have and we want to give back. It is important for them to learn how much they have and to share with those who have less. At this age, what they understand is that they are having a party and people are not bringing them presents, but they don't seem to mind, they seem to have a lot of fun."
As she spoke, a group of laughing 5-year-olds ran past, headed for the cupcakes and birthday song. Watching them, it appeared that the only thing missing from this party-without-presents were children who missed getting gifts.