A birthday cake with pink and blue frosting roses that says "Happy birthday Shalia"
A pink and blue red velvet sparkle cake that writer Katie Lauter made as a volunteer for Cake4Kids. Photo: Katie Lauter

Imagine growing up never having a birthday cake.

For the majority of us, the thought is difficult, if not inconceivable, to imagine. Most of us are fortunate to have celebrated our childhood birthdays with some kind of baked confections. But there are many children who will never receive a single birthday cake in their lives. A nonprofit called Cake4Kids is helping to change that.

Cake4Kids makes birthday cake dreams come true for disadvantaged youth, including those in foster care, group homes, homeless shelters, transitional and low-income housing and other agencies that support at-risk youth. The organization was founded in 2010 by the late Libby Gruender in Sunnyvale; today it is run by just four employees, but is supported by more than 700 volunteers to deliver cakes to young people in 10 (soon to be 11) California counties.

Cake4Kids connects with its recipients through social workers or agency caseworkers, who learn the preferred flavors and themes for a child’s desired birthday cake. Then it finds a volunteer to bake, decorate and deliver that cake. Volunteers must be at least 18-years-old (or 16, if with a parent volunteer), be a good baker (not necessarily pro-level, but decent with proficient decorating skills) and be able to deliver the decorated cake to a Cake4Kids agency during a specified time window. Bakers are expected to buy the ingredients and do all prep and baking at their homes, but Cake4Kids offers a stipend for cake decorating classes to those who want to up their game.

After hearing about Cake4Kids through a friend last year, I started volunteering for them in Alameda County, and I couldn’t be prouder to join in their work.

Through an in-person orientation, I learned the drill: volunteers sign up for cake request alerts via email and head online to best select a cake that fits their talents and timeline. For me, that means steering clear of elaborate cartoon characters and gluten-free requests, but a chocolate Transformers cake or a “pink and blue red velvet sparkle cake” are right up my alley.

As a former professional baker, I thought the entire process would be easy. The baking part was a breeze, but the decorating ended up being the challenging part. Mostly that was due to my own lofty ideas of what the cake should look like. My Transformers cake took three hours to frost and decorate, but for the pay-off, it was time well-spent.

My perfectionist tendencies shouldn’t discourage potential volunteers. Alison Bakewell, Cake4Kids director of operations said the organization doesn’t expect the resulting cakes to look like they were bought at a bakery. “We really try and reassure everyone that every cake doesn’t need to be this beautiful, professional-looking cake. We’re looking for a cake with a lot of love in it. We want to make the kids feel special.”

A chocolate cake with decorated with a Transformers character and the words "Happy birthday Kevin!"
This chocolate Transformers cake took three hours to decorate, but Lauter says it was time well spent. Photo: Katie Lauter

There are also plenty of requests for cupcakes, cookies and brownies if volunteers want to start with something basic. Lindsay Bierbrauer, manager of operations, expressed, “If all you can do is two dozen chocolate chip cookies and poke a ‘happy birthday’ banner in it, that’s great because there are kids whose only birthday wish is a batch of homemade cookies.”

Bakers deliver finished cakes to a Cake4Kids agency office. Due to privacy concerns, we never get to meet the recipients of our work, but we always get a personal thank you note from the Cake4Kids team and occasionally get feedback from the agencies who work with the kids.

“We hear over and over again from the youth, ‘I can’t believe someone took the time out of their day to make something just for me…I feel so incredibly special, and I don’t often feel that way,’” said Bakewell.

Chocolate brownies decorated to look like a basketball and with OKC Thunder basketball decorations.
Cake4Kids volunteer baker Erika created these OKC Thunder basketball brownies for a child named Ramone. Photo: Cake4Kids

Sometimes, we even get thank you notes from the family or the kids themselves, like this one from Katelyn, age 13:

“In the past birthday cakes were not always an option as we were homeless, could not afford a cake or had [no] place to bake one. When I do get a cake I make sure to eat it slowly and savor every bite so that the memory will stay with me. This birthday cake definitely will. Thank you again for all that you do.”

A grandmother of a five-year-old named Adam sent this thank you note to Cake4Kids:

“My heart cannot express how deeply touched I am that someone who does not know me or my grandchild was willing to go out of their way to make his birthday so special. To you it may have been a set of cupcakes that took a couple of hours to bake and decorate but to my grandson and I, this made him feel special and loved.

My grandson is lucky (in a way) that he is only five and does not fully comprehend the details around why he is in my care, but as he gets older this information will need to be shared. Birthdays will come and go where he may question why his parents are not included. Having a birthday cake made especially for him will hopefully take some of the sting and hurt away while turning his birthday into a happy occasion verses a sad one.

Thank you Cake4Kids and this amazing baker who are looking at ways to help a community/population that desperately needs it.”

A yellow birthday cake decorated with cutout llamas and cactus. It reads "Happy birthday Mariah"
Parent-child volunteer bakers, Bertha and Gwendolyn, made this impressive red velvet llama cake for Cake4Kids. Photo: Cake4Kids

Cake4Kids has seen tremendous growth since its inception. In 2010, the group delivered 13 cakes; in 2013, 500; and in 2018, almost 4,000 cakes were delivered. Overall, Cake4Kids has made and delivered more than 10,000 cakes. And thanks to growing interest, the organization is expanding outside of California this year to Virginia, Washington and Vancouver.

As Cake4Kids expands, it recognizes its biggest challenge is making the work scalable while keeping all of the personal touches. And as Bierbrauer acknowledged, volunteering is gratifying, but it’s mostly solitary work. So to help maintain a stronger connection with volunteers, the organization started holding baker meetups where volunteers can get to know each other and nerd out about cake decorating techniques, strengthening the community. Also helping on that front are “ambassadors” and “community coordinator” volunteers who help grow and support the organization in new areas.

Growing up, I never thought about how deeply special a birthday cake is. That has changed in the hours I’ve spent baking and decorating with Cake4Kids. For these kids, a birthday cake is a bright spot that shines just for them. It’s a sign that they have worth. That they deserve to be celebrated. That people care. And I think that’s delicious.

To find out more and to sign up to volunteer, go to www.cake4kids.org.