When most kids prepare to celebrate their fourth birthdays, they anticipate the excitement of unwrapping mounds of presents for weeks before the big day.
Not Dakota Couture.
When the Northwest boy celebrated his fourth birthday at Peter Piper Pizza on May 23, he was surrounded by canned food, rather than brightly colored gifts.
"The people that come to his party want to give him presents," Dakota's mom Mary Couture said. "But instead of spending $10 on stuff that will break, we decided it would be better to spend the $10 on things to help other people."
Dakota and his family decided to turn the birthday celebration into a canned-food drive, then donated the supplies to the Tucson Community Food Bank.
The Couture family got the idea when Anne Broomfield, Mary Couture's mother, read an article about how people often attempt to out-do others by throwing extravagant birthday parties. The article suggested turning these events into opportunities to do something for other people.
"It was hard at first," said Couture. "Kids want presents."
Couture turned to her son and asked him who he receives presents from. His grandparents, aunts and uncles, Dakota responded.
"Why are we asking everyone else to bring cans?" Couture asked him.
"To help people who don't have food," was Dakota's response.
Last year, the Coutures combined the birthdays of Dakota and his sister Isabella, and collected books for donation to the school library.
This year, Dakota began collecting canned goods in giant red bins about two weeks before his actual birthday. "It was a really good and exciting experience for him to see the cans pile in," said Couture.
The donations came from family, friends, co-workers and fellow church members. Before Dakota's actual birthday, approximately 100 cans, or "55" according to Dakota, had already been collected, and several monetary donations had been made to the food bank in Dakota's name.
On May 25, Dakota delivered the final number of cans to the food bank. He more than tripled the donations at his party. Beans, corn, mandarin oranges, carrots, soup, boxes of cereal, jars of peanut butter, even cat food totaled to 464 pounds.
"One hundred pounds for every year," observed Brenda Nicolls-Moore, emergency food box warehouse coordinator.
"That's a whole lot more than we thought," said Couture. "Then again, we put that food into the car yesterday, we felt those pounds."
After delivering the food, Dakota was given a special tour of the 145,000-square-foot food bank facility by Nicolls-Moore and Jacob Coldsmith, Community Food Bank transportation manager. Coldsmith and Nicolls-Moore showed Dakota rows of packaged boxes set aside for families to pick up once a month.
They explained that Dakota's food would be sorted and put into the boxes for a family that met low-income criteria. Sixty percent of family food box beneficiaries are children.
"Anyone that's hungry," Nicolls-Moore clarified on who receives food from the food bank, "we won't turn them away."
Rifling through the giant bins of donated food, Dakota became especially focused on one bin labeled as the "bonus item" box. These contained packaged cookies and treats such as a box of Oreos Dakota immediately discovered.
"Not a whole lot of nutritional value," said Nicolls-Moore. "But it's a heck of a treat for a family who can't afford it."
When asked what Dakota planned on doing for his birthday next year, he replied, "I want to build a house." His mother interjected, reminding Dakota that one has to be 16 to join Habitat for Humanity.