Hattie O’Brien and her husband, Brendan, wanted their kids' birthday parties to be a bit different.
"We wanted our kids to learn to serve others," Hattie said at her home Nov. 6. So for the last few birthdays, the couple have asked their children to pick a theme, and then the parents found a way to make giving a central part of the theme.
Last year, when Hattie's twin daughters, Evie and Lena, turned 11, they baked muffins and cookies and made cards to take to a local nursing home.
Now it’s their son James’ turn.
James, who will turn 9 on Nov. 22, is captivated by the Army. He has two uncles who are soldiers and another who is in the Navy Reserves. His father has served in the Air Force, and so did his grandfather. So for James' party, he's asked his friends to bring small items that can be put in boxes to send to U.S. soldiers. Attendees were also asked to bring addresses of family members or people they know who are serving in the military.
"We wanted to send them to people we knew," Hattie said. "But, thankfully, a lot of them have come home." She quickly added that her brother is deploying to Iraq in April, so the family is not all out of the woods.
James, a shy young man of few words, kept it simple when explaining why he likes the Army and those who choose to join.
"They serve our country," he said, adding that, one day, he would like to be a soldier.
James said he didn't know what exactly he should send to soldiers.
"Treats," he said, almost as if he was asking a question.
Hattie said that a relative told her about HeartsAcrosstheMiles.com, a website devoted to making service members feel as though they haven't been forgotten. Hattie is not working with the group but said the website has given the family a lot of ideas for things to send.
For instance, the site said women in the military could use calling cards, body spray, feminine hygiene products, shampoo, soap, socks and new twin bed sheets. For men, the site recommends many of the same items. James' birthday-party invitations recommend that people check the website for ideas on things to bring.
“This was a good way to go with an Army theme for the party," Hattie said. "All the kids are going to come wearing camo (camouflage)."
Hattie is planning to use boxes that once contained newspaper bags to send the packages — the O'Brien children deliver copies of the Columbine Courier every week.
"It will hold enough to just say, 'Hey, thanks,' " Hattie said. Hattie said she came up with the idea after one of her brothers was in Iraq serving in the Army.
"I felt awful," she said. "I didn't send him any care packages."
Hattie added that she and her husband discussed the idea, and recalled that the toys kids received for their birthdays often would be used for a short time and then forgotten. Those toys piled up in the O’Brien home, and usually around the same time: Four of the family's six children have birthdays in November, with one each in September and October.
The couple thought, “Why not have the kids use birthdays as a time to give to others?”
"They were OK with it," Hattie said. "We really want to inspire them to not have it be all about them," she added, looking into the backyard where her three sons were playing. "We would rather give them something to give to someone else."
Hattie O'Brien wants to expand the care package idea beyond her son's birthday party. If you have an address for a deployed service member or want to pitch in, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 303-933-2233, ext. 22.