As I said last week - I love birthdays. I also love free food. Therefore what you are about to read is a summary of how I turned 22 and turned the most mature I’ve ever been in my life.
#BirthdayGiveBack – a brief summary.
In early May, I had a coupon code for a free coffee from Krispy Kreme donuts. There is a Krispy Kreme in Penn Station which isn’t too far from the office I was commuting to at the time. I hopped off my train a bit early, intending to use my coffee coupon for a stranger.
I gave a free small coffee to a homeless man outside Penn Station on an unusually cold May morning. He was ecstatic. It was a simple act of kindness but two people’s days were made. That’s when I got to thinking. What if every time you were handed a freebie, you gave it to someone else in need? Thus the idea for #BirthdayGiveBack was born.
Two of the biggest reasons people list for not participating in charity work is a lack of time and money. As a recent college graduate living in NYC, working multiple jobs, I completely understand. That’s why I try to get creative.
I decided I would traipse through Manhattan, collecting birthday freebies and passing them out to total strangers.
On Friday, May 20th 2016, my 22nd birthday, I set out to make 22 people’s days.
1. Yoga with Nicole
I started easy. My friend Nicole, founder of the Cups for Coping nonprofit - would be joining me until she had to go into work in the afternoon. What better way to get into a calm and reflective place of service than beginning with yoga.
Here’s what I learned at yoga – I am capable of being quiet for 90 minutes. It was tough, but I managed to follow directions and not talk for a full hour and a half. I’d never been to a yoga class before, so the free session was a lot of fun. I’m more flexible than I realized too. After the class, I was asked if I was in high school though, so that was a fun way to kick off my 22nd birthday.
2. Starbucks for Samiya
We left the yoga studio and headed to Starbucks on our trek north. I had my email coupon ready and was eager to claim my free drink for a stranger. Enter Samiya. Samiya is attending college here and was going to order a S’mores Frappuccino. We had her wait to the side while I ordered on her behalf using my free code.
The cashier was ecstatic and wished me happy birthday multiple times. They even wrote “Happy birthday, Liz!” on the cup. It was just a free drink, but I had just helped a stranger at no cost to myself. And it felt great.
3. Chipotle for Another Birthday Girl
I was hungry. It was after noon at this point and I had been up early – plus yoga cleared my mind of any stress and just reminded me that food was a basic human need. We stopped into Chipotle and I used a non-birthday BOGO coupon. It was a “treat yo’self” to me too since I was able to get guacamole for no additional charge.
In line, I met Brannif who was a student celebrating her birthday as well. Her burrito bowl was free of charge thanks to a little birthday give back.
4. Boston Market Mac and Cheese for Anon
Obviously, there’s a huge ethical line in terms of documenting the day. While it is totally acceptable to tell someone about The Smile Project and take their photo in some cases, in others it would be degrading and wrong. Some of the giving – like the next gift of ice cream – would be hard to pass along to a homeless person. However, some of the prepackaged snacks and treats are perfect to pass along to someone living on the streets.
My fourth give back went to a man sitting outside Boston Market. My coupon was for a free side or dessert. We chose macaroni and cheese because it seemed like the heartiest side that was also a universal favorite. Plus, mac and cheese exudes a level of comfort. It may be labeled as a side, but mac and cheese is frequently my go-to dinner. I was happy to treat a thankful man to a delicious meal.
At this point, Nicole and I stopped to eat our lunches at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s campus. It was a great break that boosted my energy (thanks Chipotle!) and also made it easier for me to give away my free ice cream later (I like ice cream. I’m only human).
5. Oreo Baskin Robbins for Chloe
I think Baskin Robbins is what heaven smelled like. The shop was shared between the ice cream parlor and a Dunkin Donuts and the amount of things I wanted to eat in there was everything. Finally, we found our girl – a young woman named Chloe who was out with her dog Daisy. They were picking up a birthday cake for a friend. I was able to order her a small Oreo ice cream.
This one was a lot of fun for me. First, because Chloe is definitely someone I would be friends with. She was super nice and a lot of fun to talk to. Second, she had a dog. That is important. But third, because she was doing something for someone else too. She had gone to Baskin Robbins to get a cake for her friend and, even though I’m sure she got a slice of cake at the celebration that night, she also got a small snack just for being in the right place at the right time.
Giving back doesn’t always have to be a grand gesture of money or time. Sometimes it can just be a free scoop of ice cream to someone who had no intentions of treating themselves but probably deserves a treat.
6. Panera Triple Berry Scone for Anon
Panera was our next stop. The freebie was any pastry item. Once again, everything looked delicious – but my Chipotle was serving me well and I had no room in my stomach for any of the yummy food I was being tempted by. We chose a triple berry scone because it seemed like it was the heartiest of the sugar filled treats.
We left the building and didn’t have to look very far before we ran into a homeless veteran who was very grateful for the food.
7. More Krispy Kreme for Some Sweet Tots
Krispy Kreme sends me a lot of coupons. I had another pass for a free coffee or fountain drink and a donut. We stood in Penn Station, scanning for a worthy candidate before my eyes fell on a lady with a double stroller. We approached and explained what we were doing.
One decaf coffee and a “chocolate with sprinkles” donut later and we had passed on more kindness without paying a penny.
8. Au Bon Pain Turkey Sandwich for Anon
Au Bon Pain gives you an entire sandwich or salad on your birthday. I chose a turkey club that looked filling and fresh. It was prepackaged making it the perfect thing to pass to someone living on the street. That was one of the most beneficial giveaways of the day and I know the recipient was very grateful.
9. Jamba Juice for Peter
Peter was a sweet man we met in Penn Station. He was headed back to work after his lunch break and had just finished working out. We chatted with him for quite some time while we waited for his smoothie to be made.
As a note, I still wasn’t hungry, but the heat and the walking were getting to me and seeing fresh smoothies was a real temptation. This may have been the moment I realized I had reached peak maturity level. I love a good deal and I’m as thrifty as they come. I could have eaten for weeks if I had played my cards right with the birthday freebies. But what good does that do? So I get some special snacks I wouldn’t normally buy for myself or I save the donut for breakfast the next day but eventually all that has to end. No birthday freebie could ever mean more to me than the experience I was gaining from putting myself out there with this project. I was finally growing up.
10-17. Cracker Snack Packs for Anons
Nicole was gone for work and the crash was real. I was running low on phone battery, energy, and stamina. A few places had rejected my coupon codes and I was feeling a bit discouraged. That, and I was on my own.
I stopped in to Jack’s 99 Cent Store – a really great discount store located near Penn Station. I purchased an 8-pack of snack crackers (each bag had 6 peanut butter cheese crackers). As I continued my walk throughout the day, I passed out crackers to eight homeless individuals who are down on their luck. It’s not a full blown meal, but it’s something. They were appreciative and so was I. For I think $2.50 or so, I had the ability to make 8 people smile. That’s impact.
18. Entire Moe’s Meal for Anon
I went into Moe’s and presented my email code. They told me you had to print the code. I apologized and prepared to make my way out. They looked at each other and insisted I stay. They would make an exception. I was ecstatic.
The Moe’s freebie is huge. You buy a drink ($2.20 or so) and then get an entire meal. Remember, Moe’s meals come with free chips. I got some sort of basic burrito and had it packed in a nice bag. This would be the perfect giveaway.
I kept the drink for myself – which would prove important as I would carry the Moe’s bag for about 25 minutes before I found someone to give it to. I ended up mixing lots of fruit flavors of PowerAde Zero. It was weird. I’m a pretty strict “only drinks water” person but since I had paid two bucks, I really wanted to capitalize on something that would give me a spark of energy (the weather was really warming up and I had been walking for hours). Anyway, I drank the PowerAde and headed into the streets.
It took me forever to find someone in need. My location? Times Square. Usually I avoid the tourist location at all costs, but a few places I had to stop were there and there are always people in need of assistance in the heavily trafficked area. Except for at that moment, apparently.
I finally found someone and stopped to chat for a moment. He couldn’t understand why I was giving him an entire Moe’s meal. I explained that it was my birthday and so on and so on. He wished me a happy birthday and we had a nice chat before I had to take off.
19. Sprinkles Red Velvet Cupcake to Surprise Son
I went into Sprinkles Cupcakes and began chatting with the woman in front of me (who chose not to be pictured). Her son was in swim lessons and she had stopped to surprise him with his favorite cupcake for after class. We chatted for a bit about what I was doing, my work through The Smile Project, and how much her son loves Sprinkles Cupcakes. I never caught her name, but she was a delight and I know her son must have been ecstatic with his surprise snack.
20. Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream with Naijia
I cut through Central Park and landed back in the Upper West Side where I met up with my friend and co-worker Naijia. I “bought” her my free Ben and Jerry’s Cone. We sat outside and caught up. I told her all the places I’d been and all the people I’d met. It was nice to see a friend as it was nearing 12 hours since I began my journey.
She would help me pull off the second to last give back.
21. Water and Pastries for Anon
I had an unopened water bottle and a small bag of pastries to give but it was getting dark and my energy was nonexistent. I needed a hot shower, cozy pajamas, and a comfy couch to snuggle into. Naijia told me of a regular homeless man who sits outside of a deli she frequents – not far from either of our apartments. When we arrived at the location, he wasn’t there – though his stool was. We wrote a note and left the food and drink and note on his chair. I hope that made his night.
I returned home after this last give and took a long, hot shower. I changed into my pajama pants and waited until I heard a door.
22. Buca di Beppo Baked Ziti for my Amazing Roommates
Buca di Beppo gave me a small free pasta just for signing up for their emails – the birthday freebie was $20 off two entrees but I hadn’t intended on dining in anywhere so I capitalized on the “thanks for signing up” card. When I got the freebie, I realized how comically large the catering sized container was. I eventually chose to bring it home.
I moved apartments one week ago – Sunday, the 15th and have since found incredible friendships in people I had never met before agreeing to move in. One of my roommates was home, becoming my 22nd person and the person I ended my birthday with. We ate baked ziti and popcorn and watched E.T. (He let me pick and I’d never seen E.T. so it was a win-win situation). Another roommate came back halfway through and he joined us with a bowl of baked ziti and just in time to see E.T. phone home.
We even lit a scented apple cinnamon candle just so I could have a candle to blow out on my birthday. Words can’t describe how lucky I am to have found these guys.
Over 12 hours and 15 miles of walking later, I had completed my goal. I had treated over 22 people for my 22nd birthday and yet I still know that I was the individual who was treated the most.
I love birthdays. I love birthday decorations and cards and balloons and the sanctity of blowing out a candle. I’ve always had really nice birthdays – the kind you never think will be topped.
On my first birthday away from home, I sat on a couch in Manhattan, between two people I met 5 days prior, eating buttery popcorn and watching an alien movie from the 80s after an entire day of giving back Then, I realized something else about birthdays.
Birthdays are all about growing up – all about change. I am a 22 year old girl who is somehow making things work in NYC. I may not have a lot of time or disposable income, but I can still find a way to give back by using the resources that surround me.
Don’t think that what you do can’t make a difference. Don’t take the approach of being only one in a city of 8.4 million. Realize that even making one person’s day is an ability we have all been gifted with.
Thank you so much to everyone who reached out to me on my birthday and everyone who continues to support me in my endeavors. You will never know the impact of your hearts.
#BirthdayGiveBack 2016? Success.