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Birthday Wishes gets wish during HOPE Week

NEW YORK -- When a group of young kids walked into Suite 62 at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, their eyes opened wide and their mouths agape with surprise.

Standing in front of them were Yankees pitchers Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, David Phelps, catcher Chris Stewart and bullpen coach Mike Harkey, giving them a birthday surprise they will likely never forget.

The children were there with a group called Birthday Wishes, a nonprofit organization that aims to help homeless children build self-esteem by ensuring their birthdays are recognized and celebrated. On Thursday, the Yankees invited Birthday Wishes and a group of children from local homeless shelters to Yankee Stadium as part of HOPE Week.

The group stared in awe as they walked into Yankee Stadium, posed for pictures on the field, took a seat in the Yankees' dugout and met vice chairperson Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal.

After that, they were brought upstairs for their surprise. There was food, candy, memorabilia and gifts, as well as a magician, a keyboard the kids could play with and artists spray-painting the kids' names on T-shirts and hats.

And, of course, there were Yankees there, too. Even though he's out for the season, first baseman Mark Teixeira stopped by to spend part of the game watching it with the kids.

"They'll never forget this day," said Lisa Vasiloff, one of the founders of Birthday Wishes. "I'll never forget this day."

Vasiloff helped form the group in November 2002, along with Karen Yahara and Carol Zwanger. The trio, who had each volunteered in several homeless shelters, wanted to do something to help kids living in these homes to feel normal, like "regular kids."

They found that something simple as recognizing and celebrating a birthday can provide validation for these children and help them feel like they are normal members of society. Now, Birthday Wishes serves more than 175 shelters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island.

"So many of these kids live in really dark places," Vasiloff said. "When you're sitting back and watching them during a party, laughing their heads off, just pure joy -- you know that they do not experience that very often. So I know that that's helping their development."

On Thursday, they got to experience the birthday party of a lifetime. They got autographs, Yankees memorabilia, cake and a great seat to watch shortstop Derek Jeter's first game of the season. They even got to cheer on Rivera, Sabathia, Hughes, Phelps, Stewart, Harkey and Teixeria, who sang them "Happy Birthday."

For the Yankees, that's what HOPE Week is all about.

"Seeing how excited they are now, to be getting all the gifts and the candy and everything, it's a lot of fun," Sabathia said. "To be able to make this day special for them is cool for us."

"We've been blessed with so many things in our lives, so anytime we can give back, it's kind of our duty," Phelps said. "We're glad to do it. Any chance we get, we're glad to do it."

Josh Vitale is an associate reporter for
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