Happier Birthdays

by Jan 29, 2024Nonprofits, Southport Oak Island

With Birthday Wishes Ministry, Jill Leach is on a mission to make sure every child in Brunswick County receives a birthday gift.

Jill Leach wears her signature lime green jacket with “Birthday Wishes, a Ministry for Children” embroidered on the left panel. Next to it a balloon with a tail is ready to soar heavenward.

“I was a single mom with three children in Connecticut,” Leach says. “I applied for assistance but was denied because I was making too much money.” But her annual $22,000 salary didn’t cover all of her family’s expenses.

Leach remarried, and 30 years later, in 2012, she and her husband, Gary, moved to Bolivia. She never forgot the lean years of the past and decided to help women who share what she once lived. A call to Virginia Williamson Elementary School before Christmas revealed a mother with five children — just the type of family Leach wanted to help. She and Gary provided food, clothing and gifts for the family and continued this assistance for five years, even helping them move out of state to be near family.

Birthday Wishes Ministry

The Leaches’ kindness took a turn in December 2021 when Leach saw an online item at Next Door stating a mother needed clothing for her children. Leach contacted the mother with news she would provide clothing and Christmas presents, but the mother explained she could not pay her rent if she bought a birthday gift for her son. Could Leach wrap one gift in birthday paper?

Of course she could, and Birthday Wishes Ministry, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was born. She planned to give gender-neutral, age-appropriate gifts, such as puzzles and single-person games that didn’t need batteries, for children at Brunswick County elementary schools. She learned that just at Virginia Williamson Elementary, 75 students were registered with Matthews Ministry, which provides backpacks with food for weekends.

Gordon Burnette, chief communications officer at Brunswick County Schools, reports that 56% of students in Brunswick County Schools live at or below the poverty line. “We are a district of over 13,000 students, so this would be approximately 7,280 students,” he writes in an email.

The first year of Birthday Wishes Ministry, Leach gave the 75 students birthday gifts through the school’s parent facilitator. The second year she included nine elementary schools; however, logistics became complicated, so another light bulb was lit. Leach contacted Brunswick Family Assistance (BFA), which welcomed her idea.

Now when clients register at BFA, a lime green paper explains the gift concept for children ages 5 through 12 and asks for children’s first name, age and birth date. Each gift includes a handmade card and religious pamphlets. Children began receiving birthday gifts at BFA in August 2023, and the ministry plans to give more than 800 birthday gifts through BFA this year.

Jill Leach Birthday Wishes

“Birthday Wishes Ministry is such a unique program, but one that makes a huge difference in kids’ lives,” writes Stephanie Bowen, executive director of BFA. “What Jill and her team are doing is amazing, and I am glad BFA can be a small part of it. It is a blessing to our clients and their children.”

Leach says they enjoy doing this. “We want to meet the families and the children and listen to their other needs and pray with them,” Leach says. “We feel we need that face-to-face contact, and we can do that at BFA.”

Donations from friends and family provided the initial money, along with proceeds from the sale of dozens of oil and watercolor landscapes and seascapes Leach had painted. She teaches art classes with the money going to the ministry.

A fundraising tea party at Winding River included a silent auction of women’s accessories — jewelry, belts, scarves and handbags. Nearly 200 women attended, raising more than $6,000 for the ministry. It has also received several local grants.

As the project mushroomed, Leach formed a board of directors with her as president and chief executive officer and Gary as treasurer. Now more than 50 volunteers assist. Leach set up an amazon.com wish list and buys birthday paper from amazon.

The success of the tea party prompted Leach to pursue another source of income. The group acquired a retail space at Crossroads Gathering Place in Oak Island and call it Another Woman’s Treasures.

Katie Clegg and Breanna Jones, co-owners of Crossroads Gathering Place, are supportive of the ministry.

Birthday Wishes Ministry Card

“We knew we wanted them as a vendor,” Jones says and adds that Birthday Wishes began its display in May. “They are a top vendor, and customers are very supportive of their ministry.”

“Everyone has brought their talent, knowledge and skill, and it’s all come together,” says Deb Edwards, board vice president.

“We want to do this forever,” Leach says, but adds that she hopes that so many children will not need this in the future.

Want to help?
Birthday Wishes Ministry
m (910) 712-2356
Amazon wish list: amazon.com/registries/gl/guest-view/QFJQ5QOPQGJB
Another Woman’s Treasures Crossroads Gathering Place, 128 Country Club Drive, Oak Island

Photography by Katie D Photography