Be yourself. This project is YOUR baby. You brought it to life, so don’t doubt yourself and try to become someone who you’re not. When I founded The Birthday Giving Program, I was very doubtful of my idea. Because very few people believed in me, I did not believe in myself, especially when I could not start a club at my school. Eventually, I learned to have faith in my mission, and this faith gave me confidence and motivation to grow my initiative.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonika Menon.
Sonika is a senior in high school from Plainfield, Illinois. She founded The Birthday Giving Program because she believes that those often neglected in our society should be celebrated on their birthdays. Along with managing her nonprofit organization, Sonika is a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, is passionate about South Asian classical dance, and enjoys spending time with her family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born in Oak Lawn, Illinois and have lived in Illinois for my whole life. As a young girl, I was always very shy. Becoming involved in community service has allowed me to break out of my shell and has taught me so many valuable skills such as leadership, networking, and organization. I look forward to passing the lessons I have learned to others.
Growing up, my brother and I were privileged enough to receive cake, gifts, and even family vacations on our birthdays. To this day, my Mom decorates our house with the same birthday decorations from my 1st birthday party! One of my favorite celebrations was my 10th birthday; my parents rented a bouncy house for our backyard, my friends and I played with crazy string, and everyone enjoyed cake and treats.
As I got older, I realized that not everyone was celebrated in this way. The anticipation related to birthday celebrations is such an amazing feeling, regardless of how old you are. My birthday was one of my favorite times of the year, and I wanted to make birthdays special for those who could not enjoy the same privileges I had in my life.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One organization that has made a significant impact on me is my temple, the Hari Om Mandir. Fond memories of volunteering at my temple as a little girl have always stuck with me because service is not only part of my culture, it is who I am and where I came from.
My grandparents immigrated to the United States from India in 1964. Despite not having much money for themselves, they continued to help the community by contributing to the establishment of the Hari Om Temple and opening their homes to other Indian immigrants who needed shelter.
My grandparents’ story has motivated my commitment to service, and I hope to inspire others just as they have inspired me.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, making a difference means doing something to make someone’s day just a little brighter. Even the smallest actions can bring joy and happiness to an individual in need.
On my first day of middle school, I tripped on the stairs and dropped my books, binders, and everything in my pencil case. As everyone walked past me, I felt so embarrassed, even helpless in a way. Finally, an 8th grader stopped to help me pick up my belongings. This is making a difference: helping someone you don’t know and bringing a smile to their face.
This is our mission through The Birthday Giving Program, to make people smile, give them hope, and help them realize that they can achieve anything in their life.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
My organization, The Birthday Giving Program, is a 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to provide birthday bags and celebrations to children, adults, senior citizens, and veterans in need. Each birthday bag includes school supplies, coloring books, socks, clothing items, and other gifts customized to fit the age and needs of our recipients. By celebrating those in need, my organization is boosting self-esteem, an aspect that underlies every part of life. We strive to bring people together and honor people for their unique identities.
My organization not only makes a difference in the lives of its recipients, but volunteers as well. Many of the volunteers are teenagers and young adults, and becoming members of The Birthday Giving Program teaches them the value of giving back to the community. Therefore, by instilling these values in its volunteers, The Birthday Giving Program is shaping the next generation of leaders and change-makers.
Since inception in May 2017, my organization has raised over 33,000 dollars and expanded to serve over 90 organizations across 36 states (plus the District of Columbia) with the help of over 100 volunteers. The Birthday Giving Program has celebrated thousands of individuals in need: those affected by poverty, homelessness, violence, physical/mental challenges, and old age.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As an individual with food allergies, I have often felt excluded from my community, whether that be at restaurants, weddings, and other events. In May 2019, I had a severe anaphylactic reaction and was admitted to the hospital. This experience transformed me from a girl who was once outgoing and adventurous to someone who feared eating foods she had tried before. Food is supposed to bring people together, but for me, it was a barrier separating me from family and friends.
I knew that there were other people who also felt excluded just like me, and that is why I started The Birthday Giving Program. Birthdays bring people together and remind us that people should be celebrated, not excluded, for their differences. Regardless of people’s income and the challenges that they face, everyone deserves to be accepted and respected for who they are. This is our mission through The Birthday Giving Program: to celebrate our individuality as human beings.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My “Aha Moment” was when I could not start a Birthday Giving Club at my school. Initially, I was disappointed, but eventually, I realized that I could not give up. I built my nonprofit to serve over 90 organizations across 36 states (plus the District of Columbia) and are bringing hope to thousands of people in need.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the
things or steps you took to get your project started?
Making an outline with my organization’s purpose, goals, and plans for action was my first step. After creating this plan, I began cold-calling nonprofits in my area, explaining my project’s mission, and expressing my desire to meet with the director to discuss further.
Eventually, I decided to make my project a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Upon doing some research, I completed some paperwork and registered The Birthday Giving Program as an official nonprofit with the IRS and Illinois Attorney General. I also bought a domain name through GoDaddy and made a website for my charity project. Taking these steps gave my project the credibility it deserved. Volunteers and other nonprofits could now learn more about my nonprofit and could be certain that The Birthday Giving Program was not just a project, but a real nonprofit organization.
After 2-3 months of delivering birthday bags and hosting birthday parties for a few local organizations, I encouraged my brother, cousins, and friends to get involved with my project. We began hosting fundraisers and volunteer events. My team and I also reached out to local newspapers to spread the word about the program.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting event for me was being featured on CNN Young Wonders and attending the CNN Heroes Tribute Show. Visiting New York City, walking the red carpet, and meeting Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa are definitely memories I will never forget. Most importantly, connecting with other change-makers from across the world was truly inspiring and taught me that in order to make a lasting impact on this world, we all need to work together.
This experience taught me that my service work is important and that it is being recognized by others. Additionally, it also helped expand The Birthday Giving Program on a national scale, allowing us to reach even more people in need.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When I was first starting, I decided to use huge cardboard banker’s boxes instead of birthday bags. Each box cost 3 dollars, so this decision of mine was not economically feasible nor efficient for our volunteers, who spent a lot of time wrapping the lids in happy birthday paper. We also used to bake individual cakes which were eventually replaced with sheet cakes. This helped save time and money as well.
Through these situations, I learned to plan out my ideas before implementing them. Also, they taught me about the importance of efficiency in terms of cost and time. Today, my organization uses paper gift bags with our logo, a more cost (and time) efficient option.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My biggest cheerleader has definitely been my Mom. When I first started my project, no one believed in me except for my Mom. Initially, I had plans to start The Birthday Giving Program as a club at my high school. After I realized this was not possible, I was discouraged and thought this would be the end of my project.
My Mom encouraged me to be resilient and find another way to pursue my idea to its fullest potential. Her support motivated me to be persistent, and eventually, I built The Birthday Giving Program into a nationwide nonprofit organization. When no one had faith in me, my Mom did, and that’s why she is my cheerleader.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I first visited the local homeless shelter to deliver a birthday bag, I met a three-year-old boy abandoned by his father. He was unaware of the poverty encumbering him: the canned meals his twenty-year-old mother could barely afford, the used clothes that did not fit, and the problems he would face in the future.
As a sparkly blue balloon popped out of his birthday box, he giggled with delight and called over his sister, who was running around the lobby. When I opened the Chips Ahoy cookie package, the little boy and his sister grabbed four or five cookies each and began chasing each other around the room. This was a bittersweet moment for me; I had never seen a child so happy to eat cookies in my entire life. I knew that he felt happy, excited, and most of all, loved.
The only toy the boy had in his possession was a bright red fire truck, so I knew the toys in this birthday box would make him and his sister so happy. The stuffed teddy bear, coloring book, toy cars, and board games would bring him joy and happiness, feelings that every child his age deserves to experience.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Through The Birthday Giving Program, I am trying to remind people that their existence matters in this world. I am encouraging people to celebrate their differences.
- Accept people for who they are. Don’t try to change them; rather, encourage them to embrace their differences. If you see someone being excluded, include them. One of the root causes of low self-esteem is exclusion and feeling like you don’t belong. By including someone in your group, you are showing them that they do belong.
- Equality with respect to education, healthcare, and the pursuit of happiness needs to prevail in such a diverse society. Everyone deserves equal opportunities to succeed. Politicians and other leaders in our society need to take action to make this happen.
- Be kind. You don’t know the struggles that other people have experienced in their lives, so treat everyone with respect.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Always ask for help because sometimes, other people come up with ideas that you haven’t thought of yet. When I first started The Birthday Giving Program, I used 3 dollars banker’s boxes, but eventually, one of my volunteers suggested switching to paper gift bags. This made our organization much more cost-efficient.
- Pursue what you are passionate about in life. You put your best foot forward when you are passionate about a cause. I truly believe in my mission through The Birthday Giving Program, and this drive pushes me to do more. Every day, I work to expand my organization, whether that be contacting new organizations to serve, posting advertisements on volunteer websites, or packing birthday bags for the nonprofits I serve in Illinois.
- Remember that it’s your project, so don’t be afraid to pursue your own ideas. About one year after starting The Birthday Giving Program, a few family members and friends suggested changing our logo to make it more “modern.” I never changed the logo – that logo represented me and the program. Opinions should be respected, but not completely alter your ideas.
- Plan before you take action. Without anticipating the challenges you could experience, it’s difficult to accomplish what you set out to do. For example, I created a business plan for my project. This business plan not only outlined my project’s goals and expansion strategies, but also acknowledged competitors and the challenges we would face.
- Be yourself. This project is YOUR baby. You brought it to life, so don’t doubt yourself and try to become someone who you’re not. When I founded The Birthday Giving Program, I was very doubtful of my idea. Because very few people believed in me, I did not believe in myself, especially when I could not start a club at my school. Eventually, I learned to have faith in my mission, and this faith gave me confidence and motivation to grow my initiative.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
When you make a positive impact on your community, you are shaping the next generation of leaders. Nobody can change the world alone; we need each other to make a difference. By taking action, you are inspiring those around you to stand up and make this world a better place. As more and more people unleash this positivity, the world is not only becoming better, but so are the people within it. Therefore, making a difference is important to uplift society because the only way to achieve our goals is by working together and ensuring that no one is left behind.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Kamala Harris. She faced so many challenges throughout her life, but proved that with adversity comes grit, determination, and resilience. Kamala used this determination to not only break barriers for herself, but for the next generations of women. Kamala’s story should inspire us all that we can achieve whatever we set our minds to, and also use our stories to ensure a brighter future for others.
How can our readers follow you online?
Please follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Feel free to visit our website at https://birthdaygivingprogram.club/ for more information about The Birthday Giving Program.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!