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100 Women Who Care helps foster kids celebrate birthdays

Mark Parker

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An emotional Belinda Leto (left), co-founder of Celebrate Birthdays, received $18,000 during 100 Women Who Care's event Sept. 1. Photos by Mark Parker.

St. Petersburg’s 100 Women Who Care chapter held its quarterly event Sept. 1, which means another well-deserving nonprofit walked away with $18,000 to further its mission.

The St. Petersburg Women’s Club’s historic waterfront ballroom was once again the site of a night of camaraderie and giving. The fundraising events feature three area nonprofits carefully selected from a group of 20 nominees by a search committee. Attendees must leave $100 at the door to raise a $10,000 grand prize.

However, 100 Women Who Care’s efforts have caught the attention of other local private and corporate donors, enabling the group to provide the night’s winner, as voted by attendees, with a much-needed $18,000 check.

While all three nonprofits represented noble philanthropic causes, and each leader gave impassioned presentations on why their organization needed the extra funding, Celebrate Birthdays – and the foster children it serves – walked away as the night’s big winner.

“We do this from a piece of our hearts, and it’s our passion to make this happen for these kids,” said an emotional Belinda Leto, co-founder. “I can’t put into words how much this means to the children we serve.”

Leto began her presentation with a sobering statistic. She relayed that over 50% of Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco County’s foster kids have never celebrated a birthday.

Celebrate Birthdays’ mission is to enable children in foster care to do just that. While headquartered in Tampa, Leto said 65% of the organization’s efforts are in St. Petersburg and Pinellas.

Leto and her co-founder, Celina Saunders, are both full-time nurses who incorporated Celebrate Birthdays as a nonprofit in 2019. Leto identifies children in need through partnerships with several other community organizations.

Celebrate provides birthday boxes filled with 16 items, including at least one gift and a book to promote literacy. The co-founders’ grassroots campaign has grown significantly over the years, and Leto said they now provide over 100 boxes monthly and have served more than 4,500 children since the nonprofit’s inception.

“Wherever these children reside in our community,” said Leto. “Whether it be in a motel, whether it be in a car or whether it be under a bridge – and believe me, we’ve served them in all these places.”

Celebrating a birthday, explained Leto, makes the children feel loved and important, boosts self-esteem and increases a feeling of self-worth. She relayed a story about a foster kid named Jasmine, 17, who began to sob when Leto handed her a cupcake with a candle.

Jasmine, said Leto, was overcome with emotion because that marked the first time anyone celebrated her birthday.

Leto (center) with St. Petersburg chapter co-founders Christina Noordstar (left) and Lauren Brigman.

In light of the organization’s impact over the last three years, Leto and Saunders now plan to take the program a step further with a birthday bus.

Leto said Celebrate recently received a donated bus that she hopes to retrofit into something like a mobile pop-up clothing “store” for foster kids. The children will pick out clothes and receive socks, undergarments, accessories, toiletries and a book. Through the help of volunteers, the organization also provides a hand-made birthday card for a more personal touch.

“They can hop on this bus and have an experience,” she said. “And feel special and feel loved and feel important. That is what it’s all about.”

The bus, said Leto, is in critical need of renovations, paint or a body wrap, routine maintenance and fuel. While most of the events are in Pinellas County, she also drives over an hour to places like Ruskin. “The miles don’t matter to me as long as the children get to celebrate,” she added.

Leto said the grand prize, initially thought to be $15,000, would cover “a really great chunk” of the cost for retrofitting the bus.

Thanks to the generosity of donors, two other deserving local nonprofits also took home $350 Thursday night.

Katie Combs, director of Bay Area Performing Arts and Casting (BAPA), explained how her organization equips children with the skills needed to perform while providing those opportunities and encouraging individual growth. The program currently serves 61 local kids, many of who participate through scholarships.

Combs is putting on a show in February at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, which costs about $18,000. If BAPA received help with the up-front costs, she said the organization could become self-sustainable through ticket sales.

Her students treated the women in attendance to a performance, and one teenager, Jeffrey, relayed what BAPA meant to him. When his father passed away during the pandemic, he said he entered a “dark place” but found solace in the program.

“Mrs. Combs actually helped pay for us to travel to the funeral,” said Jeffrey. “I think that just really shows the community we have here at BAPA – everyone is just so loving.”

The BAPA kids performed a song for the women in attendance.

Mara Spears emotionally relayed the impetus for starting the Ali Spears Foundation, named in honor of her daughter. Doctors diagnosed Ali with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) when she was 11. After a two-year fight, she succumbed to the rapidly progressive cancer in 2019 at just 13 years old.

Mara Spears channeled her grief into a nonprofit foundation that raises awareness for pediatric cancer, helps families going through the pain and financial strain it causes, and supports research that could someday provide a cure.

Spears said that she signed an agreement with St. Petersburg’s Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in June 2021 to create the Ali Spears Innovation Fund for pediatric cancer research. The money, she explained, supports blood and bone marrow transplant research to increase the odds of survival and decrease the chance of reoccurrence.

“Because it’s the first day of September, which is childhood cancer awareness month, I can’t think of a better day to be standing here talking to you,” said Spears. “We fund research to find a cure – because ultimately, today, 43 children will be diagnosed with cancer.”

Mara Spears (center) launched the Air Spears Foundation in 2019 following her daughter’s death from leukemia at age 13. Noordstar (left) and Brigman look on.

The next 100 Women Who Care meeting, is Nov. 3. For more information, visit the website here.

 

 

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