Steamboat Springs Instead of unwrapping the usual mountain of presents at his last birthday party, Lisa Gamber's first-grade son raised money to adopt a pair of wild gorillas.
Surprisingly, turning his birthday party into a charity event did not take too much prodding - once Gamber assured her son that the gorillas would stay in Africa and not come live with them in Steamboat Springs.
"All I had to say to him was 'What do you think about helping gorillas?'" Gamber said. "All I had to do was mention the word 'poaching' and his eyes got real big, and he was like 'I want to do that!'"
Gamber is coordinating Kids Give, an effort encouraging elementary school children to give instead of receive at their birthday parties.
"It's good for them to start thinking about giving back," said Mary Darcy, whose son, Raleigh, raised money for Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation when he turned 9 in January.
"No one was thinking about presents," Darcy said. "It was probably the best birthday party we've ever had."
At the beginning of the school year, Kids Give challenged elementary-age kids in Steamboat to raise $4,000 for charity at birthday parties this year. As of January, students at Soda Creek Elementary School, Strawberry Park Elementary School and the Lowell Whiteman School had collectively raised $1,200, Gamber said.
Kids Give has put up posters in all the schools showing progress toward their goal, and gives updates in school newsletters about kids who have donated money at their birthday parties and which charity they chose, Gamber said.
Under a recent new agreement, the local Lions Club will match birthday party donations to local charities, up to $100, said Steamboat Springs Lions Club President David Lacey.
"The Lions Club is always looking for good charities to donate to," Lacey said. "We're sticking to local charities, because we want the money to stay here."
The Lions Club involvement was a natural extension of charitable giving by Lacey's family - his son has had several such birthday parties in the past few years, donating to the Whale Trust and the local animal shelter.
"They're still getting presents," Lacey said. "These kids aren't poor little kids - they're fairly well-equipped with toys. It's about teaching them a lesson, about giving instead of receiving."
When you already have three kids, it's amazing how much you accumulate, Darcy said.
"Right after Christmas, we really don't need 25 more presents," she said.
After years of uncoordinated efforts from parents, including a number of birthday parties that doubled as food drives for LIFT-UP of Routt County, Gamber has only come across a single naysayer who does not want their kids to participate.
"It's not something you want to force on your kid - I wouldn't have made him do it," Darcy said. "It's a little hard for them initially, but once they think about it a little more they really like it."
Kids Give helps teach sustainability and social responsibility, and puts the control in the child's hands by letting them make the choice to participate and choose the charity, Gamber said.
"Our family recycles, and they can put their stuff in the bin, but this is something they can specifically do," Gamber said. "They make this sacrifice for their world, and the world needs more people like that."
Gamber hopes that teaching kids about social responsibility early in life will carry on and spread habits of charitable giving.
"Anybody who does it, it's great," Gamber said. "That'll be their birthday tradition, and they'll pass it on to their kids."