“Our goal is to provide birthdays to children in need of a birthday surprise when they would otherwise go without this year,” explains the website annarborbirthdaysurprise.com. “We are not an organization. We are a family of three who truly care about the trials of today.”

It’s all true: the site is the personal charity of a middle-class Ypsilanti family. The mom, thirty-three-year-old Michelle, asked that their last name not be printed, because they’re “not looking for a pat on the back.” So far this year they’ve received eighteen birthday requests they consider legitimate, and fulfilled thirteen of them.

The project began last fall, when Michelle learned that a family she knew couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal. When she told her husband, she recalls, “he looked at me and said, ‘Go to the store and get them whatever they need.’ We bought everything for their dinner, including salt and pepper. They were able to live on the leftovers for two weeks.”

In December they ran an ad on craigslist that offered to buy the ingredients for Christmas dinners. More than forty families responded—many, Michelle says, with heartbreaking stories of foreclosures, divorces, medical bills, and domestic assaults. But even with online offers of food donations and assistance, she was able to assist only seven families.

After a craigslist reader scolded her for helping out only during the holidays, she looked for a year-round activity, and hit on birthday parties. Why worry about birthdays, when many people lack even the basics of food and shelter? Michelle explains that when she was growing up, “I never had a good birthday because my parents couldn’t afford it. . . . [Birthdays] are a bit of innocence for a child. It’s that one special day that should be their day.

“A friend once said to me, ‘If you have the ability to do it, you should do it.’ This is something I can do and feel good about.”

So far Michelle and her family have covered almost all the cash outlays themselves, but supporters who’ve found them through the website or their ads on craigslist have helped out with cakes and gifts—including clothes, toys, and theater tickets (contributed by Wild Swan). She says they’re committed to offering the parties through 2009.

What about requests that aren’t legitimate? “I give to the needy and not the greedy,” Michelle replies with a chuckle. Luckily, the greedy are “pretty easy to spot: they send me a long wish list of expensive gifts. One woman asked for a Nintendo DS—forget it! I tell people not to expect much. And most parents just ask for warm clothing and a small toy for their kid.”