South Branch Reformed Church’s youth group helps kids in need celebrate birthdays.

“Icing!” “Cake mix!” “Balloons!”

As Joanne Powell called out each item, students jumped up excitedly around the room. The youth group was gathered in the parlor of South Branch Reformed Church in Hillsborough, New Jersey, to play an unusual version of bingo.

When Powell, their youth director, shouted the name of something necessary for a birthday party, the students holding that item would put it into bags. The bags were earmarked for the Community Assistance Program of Hillsborough, which provides food to 120 families in and around Hillsborough yearly.

“I’m pretty sure that old parlor had never seen anything quite as rollicking as that bingo game,” Powell says.

“Rollicking” in a Reformed church might be a rare sight, but this wasn’t your typical youth group playing yet another youth group game. Instead, these youth were being transformed into disciples—becoming doers of the Word, serving beyond the church walls.

“I am so proud of these kids,” says Stephen Eckert, pastor of South Branch. “They weren’t just playing games. They were learning they can make a difference.”

“The game was a lot of fun, especially knowing we were helping others,” says Wyatt Bowden, a youth group member.

Cathy Faerber, assistant director of social services for Hillsborough Township, says the bags were “well received” and “much needed,” especially with the increase in the number of families seeking help over the last five years.

“When times are tough, the extras get cut,” she says. Until recently, Eckert had never considered those extras—like cake mix and icing for a birthday party. One day, though, while delivering the bags of food that his congregation regularly collected, he began talking with Faerber about the needs that go beyond a can of peas.

When Eckert shared with Powell what he learned, she had already been mulling over a “party-in-a-bag” idea she had heard about from a friend. She says she realized birthday parties were something “our kids would never imagine not having.”

She brought the idea of collecting supplies for a birthday party to the youth group, and they quickly embraced the project.

“I had known people weren’t as fortunate, but I didn’t realize it was on this bad of a scale,” says Powell’s son, Mike, who is also part of the youth group.

The youth group collected party supplies and assembled the bags in February, which coincided with Eckert’s own birthday.

In addition to soliciting the congregation, one student posted the need for donations on Facebook, and Mike took flyers to school. One of his teachers gave him two full bags of birthday party supplies.

All in all, the youth group assembled 45 birthday bags.

“To help kids have an amazing birthday, when some may not be able to … this is one of my favorite activities,” says Isabel Bowden, another youth group student.

The birthday bag project will become a yearly tradition with South Branch Reformed, Powell says, adding, “It makes a difference when kids can see the good they’re doing in their own backyard.”