On February 12, 2019, Brendon Fontaine blew out five candles on a birthday cake covered in strawberry icing and topped with a plastic figurine of his favourite character from Paw Patrol. “He loved the cake,” says his mother, Faith, who lives in Winnipeg with Brendon and his little sister. “I hid it in the back of the fridge to keep him from peeking.”
Brendon’s surprise came courtesy of Cakes for Kids Winnipeg, a group of home bakers who recognize that a simple birthday cake can be an extravagance for families like the Fontaines, who live on social assistance.
The group was founded three years ago by Christy Rogowski, a 40-year-old who works in health care software, and her partner, Wendy Singleton, a 46-year-old health care administrator. “Imagining a child who wasn’t going to have a birthday cake was really upsetting,” Rogowski says.
A Facebook call-out for volunteers eventually added 150 bakers to their roster, which includes people of all skill levels—grandmothers who like to bake with their grandchildren as well as professional bakers. When volunteers first apply, they’re asked why they want to contribute. “Some people have said that they didn’t have a cake on their birthday growing up, and they know how important it is,” says Singleton. More commonly, though, they say they want families in need to know that their neighbours care about them.
The cake recipients are nominated by community organizations and Winnipeg Child and Family Services, which send Rogowski and Singleton information about each kid’s interests and favourite flavours. Designs have included elaborate fondant icing shaped into unicorns, superheroes or a lemonade stand. All cakes are provided anonymously, although the volunteer bakers love to hear about the look on a child’s face when they first see their cake.
A child might receive a cake because of the family’s lack of money—22 per cent of children in Winnipeg are living in poverty—or lack of a kitchen in which to bake. Sometimes a parent or child is sick, leaving the family too busy to make the treat themselves.
Cakes also go to children living in foster care. Jodi Korolyk, a family services worker with Winnipeg Child and Family Services, has so far ordered birthday cakes for five of the almost 800 kids in their system. “It shows the child they have a lot of people there to support them and celebrate them,” she says. “For most kids, it doesn’t really matter what the cake looks like; just getting one is exciting.”
Korolyk sometimes arranges for parents whose children are in foster care to bring the cake to their kids themselves. “It’s a really good tool to help promote a relationship between them,” she says, adding that it can also build the parents’ trust in her.
By the end of last year, Cakes for Kids had provided over 575 cakes to mark kids’ birthdays, and the baking continues. Rogowski and Singleton are even considering expanding the program nationally and also baking for isolated seniors. After all, there’s no age limit to the positive impact of a well-timed cake.
These random acts of kindness will make you proud to be Canadian!