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Portland Beginnings

I found my soul mate, Micah, in high school and we got hitched at a tender 21-years-old.  Along with a strange new last name and a shiny ring, I inherited a job as an overnight staff member at a family homeless shelter called My Father’s House.   Micah was the only one getting paid, but I came along to avoid spending two nights alone every week.  We spent time with the families, checked curfew and chores, and shared a twin-size bed.

In a few short weeks, the residents became like family: the single mothers escaping domestic violence; the children with learning disabilities and runny noses; the couples just trying to survive one more day as a complete family; and single fathers dealing with demolished egos.  We ate late night meals together, laughed at terrible television (Next Top Model anyone?), and I heard their stories. Often they would tell me about years of abuse, pain, and discouragement which had led them into extreme poverty. However, amidst the darkness, I found their stories were also filled with glimmers of hope and redemption.  And thus began my life-long love story with the homeless.

My Father's House

It’s a strange feeling to be on the fresh brink of adulthood and to feel as if I had found my life’s calling without even trying.  God had placed a supernatural passion in me for broken people and the peace and purpose I found in the work was breathtaking.

Needless to say, I threw myself (sometimes haphazardly, young as I was) into loving those families.  I eventually started getting my own little paycheck as a staff member, but that was just a happy surprise.  I had a rough job description, but if I saw a need, I filled it.  I could be jumping in to help a mom with a job application, or rolling up my sleeves to pick lice nits out of three children’s hair.

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And then I noticed the residents’ birthdays slipping by unnoticed.

MFH was a very small non-profit at the time with a skeleton staff to keep costs down- it’s no wonder birthdays became a low priority as they tried to focus on life skills, employment, and sustainable housing. But when I realized many of the residents (kids included) had gone years without having their birthday recognized, I knew I was going to have to do something.  Thus the beginning of my birthday party crusade: I was determined to have every resident at MFH feel loved and valued on their birthday.

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Little Dusty throughly enjoying his first birthday cake at one of my first parties

Through my next 7 years working at MFH, I had many roles and responsibilities including volunteer management, case management, event planning, and program development.  But making sure life’s celebrations were treasured for residents was always one of my greatest passions and joys.  I threw hundreds of birthdays, a few baby showers, and even pulled off a handful of weddings.

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Through the work we did at MFH, the little glimmer of hope I had heard in their stories became bigger than the pain and the struggle of their past.  The families found life could be celebrated again, often in a way they had never experienced and I felt honored to be a part of their new journey.

Moving a Mile High

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I thought I would work and live in the Pacific Northwest for the rest of my life, but in a whirlwind of events our family relocated in the summer of 2011 to Denver, Colorado.  I spent the first few months of our new life in Denver adjusting to becoming a stay-at-home mom with my two little girls, but the homeless were never far from my heart. I couldn’t seem to feel whole if they weren’t a part of my life.

And so entered Warren Village First Step, a little transitional housing community for single moms and women.  I knew I was over-qualified for the position- it was only 4 hours a week providing childcare during their life skill classes.  But I didn’t really mind what kind of work I would be doing, just as long as I could still have a way to build a relationship with the people God had originally called me to passionately love.

The job turned out to be a great fit- I had a creative outlet away from home and I loved cooking for the women and playing with their kids.  And then I noticed those birthdays sliding by again, sometimes as if they weren’t even there at all.  Having just started a cake decorating hobby, I offered to make a fancy cake for a 7-year-old little girl (let’s call her Amy) who’s mom had major health issues and extreme financial pressures.

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Amy’s cake

Amy hadn’t celebrated her birthday in several years because of the turmoil in her family life.  When her mom was able to surprise her with a pretty cake, she actually burst into tears because she was so surprised and happy.

So it’s no wonder Amy’s birthday story completely wrecked me and I was back on the birthday crusade.

One night, while making a Mickey Mouse cake for a 4-year-old boy at First Step, a little whisper came into my heart.  I’ll call it a “God moment” because I’ve rarely felt like I had heard something so clearly. The whisper sounded like: “I’ve created you for this very thing.”

The moment was so profound, I wiped the buttercream off my hands, grabbed a notebook and scribbled out my first ideas of how I could possibly make my passion for the homeless and my love of celebrations become something with a bigger impact.  What if I could rally more community support and ensure that no child in a shelter missed their birthday? What kind of change could I make in these kids lives if I had more help?

A Dream on Hold: An Update

I continued to throw birthday parties at Warren Village until spring of 2014 and just as I had begun to rally a team of support, I found myself having to make a tough choice to stay in Colorado or move back to Portland.  It was a difficult decision, especially since I felt like I was building momentum to pursue my birthday charity dream.  For more details of why I decided to move back to Oregon, you can check out my post here.  

As of now, I went back to working with homeless families at My Father’s House as the Women’s Case Manager.  It’s a wonderful ministry and I get to watch with wonder as families come in broken, and in a matter of months find stability and grace in miraculous ways.  It’s rewarding work to be a part of and employment my own family needs, but my birthday dreams still hang in the background.

I originally started this blog with the hopes of starting a non-profit birthday ministry, but for now, that dream has been put on hold.  Instead, I will continue to post my various cake-escapades and document how God is piecing together this crazy life of mine.  We shall have to see if my journey leads a way back to serving my two greatest passions simultaneously.  As for now, I will love on the homeless in my day job, and bake away my weekends.  I’d be glad for you to join me on my messy way.

2 Comments on My Story

  1. We need you, again, Heather! You did a beautiful job on our wedding cake in May and now my daughter is getting married in Powell Butte, OR on new year’s eve. She needs glutten free and small (only 20 people attending). Are you able to do that on such short notice? What would the price be? Once we connect, I’ll have her give you details.

    I’m in Oregon now, too! Lots of wind!! However, not missing commuting to the office in snow!

    thanks for letting me know! Jolene (Grauberger) Lampinen

    • JoLene, I still can’t believe we both ended up moving back to Oregon and so close together too! I wish I could do your daughter’s wedding cake, but I don’t think I can commit because of the timing- the holidays are crazy! I also haven’t developed a good gluten-free recipe yet- guess I should get on that bandwagon soon! However, the bakery I work at does gluten-free and they do wedding cakes too. I probably would not be the one to decorate it, but they do really beautiful cakes (not just cupcakes). Check them out at http://www.bellacupcake.net They are in Gresham, so close by too 🙂 So nice to hear from you!

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