Birthday challenge is to spread joy to kids


ABOVE: Cindy Lander Wallach started Birthday Joy in 2012. The nonprofit organization helps provide birthday gifts for children in homeless shelters or receiving help from social service agencies. Behind Wallach are her children, Abby, 13, and Dylan, 15. Photo: Lisa Mandel


Growing up in St. Louis, Cindy Lander Wallach remembers that whenever a family member had a birthday, her father would stop at Missouri Baking Co. for a special cake, and a great celebration would follow. 

As a young adult, Wallach, her husband and their kids often delivered birthday gifts to children who were living in homeless shelters or receiving help from social service agencies. As a gift to herself on her 50th birthday, Wallach launched Birthday Joy, a not-for-profit organization that to date has provided birthday gifts to about 3,000 children.

The Jewish Light plans to honor Wallach at an event May 22 as an Unsung Hero for her work with Birthday Joy and other organizations that better people’s lives. 

“I am really honored by this award,” said Wallach, who with her husband, John, is a member of Central Reform Congregation.


“On past birthdays, I had taken a drum lesson, learned to juggle or tried a Pilates class, but for my 50th I wanted to put together an organization to help kids.”

Wallach made a list of social service agencies and shelters and met with executive directors and social workers to assess the need. 

“One agency gave every birthday child a bottle of bubbles,” she said. “Sometimes, case managers would scramble to get a toy in time. I decided Birthday Joy could help. I spoke with friends and family and approached donors for funding. It was like starting a business.” 

Wallach’s dining room table soon was piled high with toys.

To date, Wallach and about 75 volunteers working with Birthday Joy have provided presents for children affiliated with more than a dozen agencies, including Family Forward (formerly the Family Resource Center), Our Little Haven, Gateway 180, Homeless Reversed, Edgewood Children’s Center, Shriners Hospital for Children, Ronald McDonald House and Lydia’s House. 

“Cindy Wallach is a hero to us,” said Jessica Dederer, chief development officer at Family Forward. “For five years, Cindy has been supporting the work we do, and her charity has literally provided joy for thousands of kids. 

“Cindy raises the money for gifts, and volunteers shop and deliver them, all wrapped in vividly colored birthday bags, for some of the most vulnerable kids. And it’s all done with such grace.”

Wallach gets a list each month with names and ages of children about to celebrate a birthday. Volunteers shop for gifts for about 100 kids each month, she said. 

Birthday Joy also has small areas with free gifts set up in one homeless shelter and in a women’s safe house. Another, at Shriners Hospital, is called Arthur’s Birthday Joy Area, in honor of Wallach’s father’s work with the Shriners. Family members or case managers present the gifts to the children. 

“We want the gift to come from somebody the child knows,” Wallach said. 

Some entire families volunteer to shop for toys. 

“Families want to involve their kids, to teach them about caring for others, so we’ve had shoppers as young as 3. Nobody knows what a 5-year-old would like better than another 5-year-old,” Wallach said, laughing. 

She also does some of the shopping. 

“I love that hour that I am at the store,” she said. “I search for presents as though I were shopping for family members or friends’ children.”

Some individuals honor birthdays of family members, friends or even themselves by making donations to Birthday Joy. Some also donate in memory of a loved one. (See for more information.) Scout troops have made donations, as have groups sponsored by congregations and young teens making their bat or bar mitzvah. 

After receiving a donation from one Girl Scout troop, Wallach held a surprise birthday party for them, complete with decorations and cupcakes. 

“They thought they were coming to a regular meeting, but it was a party,” Wallach said. “While they ate cupcakes, I asked them to write down how they felt when they walked in. I asked about their birthday traditions and their favorite gifts. And I asked them to think about the kids who have never experienced any of that.” 

The scouts, all fifth-graders, then used the money they had donated to shop for toys for Birthday Joy. 

In addition to running her marketing firm and Birthday Joy, Wallach sits on the boards of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Center, A World of Difference Institute, Crown Center for Senior Living, Central Reform Congregation, the Century Foundation and the Washington University Neighbors Council.

How does she get everything done?

“Early on, I learned how to be organized and prioritize,” Wallach said, laughing. “I learned from my dad that it was important to have balance each day, to help your clients, do good for your community and spend time with family and friends.”

And that’s what joy looks like in Wallach’s life.


Age: 55

Family: Married to John, a lawyer, with two children and a stepdaughter

Occupation: Founder and  president of SAGE Marketing

Home: Clayton

Fun Fact: On her birthday, Wallach always does something she’s never done before.