By Vanessa Gutierrez
Sometimes the best birthday gift received is the joy you feel helping others. (Courtesy of Flickr)
As far as birthdays go, one’s 21st is loaded with expectations. Expectation number one: drinking.
Turning 21, in New York City no less, puts pressure on celebrating a 21st birthday by getting a large group of friends down to a club in Manhattan to drink their wallets dry, documented by a picture on social media of a drink in hand and a #twentyfun caption. Truth be told, just the idea of planning a stereotypical 21st celebration and balancing everyone’s availability, tastes and budgets was stressing me out. Trying to attain a perfect 21st party would mean an overwhelming amount of work for what I know would have been an underwhelming and ultimately unfulfilling birthday.
That’s not how I wanted to spend my birthday, and I said so to a coworker on a train ride home from work. He said, “Forget about that. Do something for your birthday that means something to you.” I mulled it over. I tried to think of what I could do to celebrate that would make me happy, but I was too preoccupied (and stressed) running Fordham University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA. Our chapter is building fish farms for communities in Uganda, and we are responsible for everything from technical engineering plans, to funding, to seeing the construction through over the course of multiple years. The project has life-changing implications for the families affected in the community, which is why I joined the chapter freshman year. Now as a senior and co-president, I’ve seen the years of hard work put in by our students and the families and I feel the pressure to ensure the project succeeds.
I went on Facebook and saw someone “donating their birthday” to a big name NGO. It wasn’t a small organization, it wasn’t their 21st birthday…but I thought, why not? Our chapter wouldn’t be an option from the drop-down menu. but we direly need the funding. Donating one’s 21st birthday is essentially unheard of, and it’s so opposite the stereotypical celebration, it could actually work in favor of the fundraiser.
It was the perfect solution: an organization I care deeply about would get game-changing funding, and I would celebrate my birthday in a way infinitely more meaningful than the alternative; not to mention, I’d actually remember it, too. I decided: I was donating my 21st birthday. I made an official fundraising page through Engineers Without Borders USA, with a description on why I was doing it, what it was going towards and a fundraising goal of $2,100.21 (obviously). I kicked off the fundraiser by donating $21 myself, then made a Facebook event lasting from then until my birthday (note there’s a maximum two week length and 500 guest invite to a public event), and shared what I was doing on all my social media. I added a #twentyfundraising hashtag to poke fun and build off of the stereotypical #twentyfun option I was replacing. The donations started rolling in overnight.
I expected “real adults,” people with full time jobs, to donate. I didn’t expect my fellow always-broke-and-drowning-in-student-loan-debt students to donate, and I certainly didn’t expect my student friends from countries with currencies less than the USD to donate either. If anything, I expected maybe $5 here or there.
$21. $21. $21. $21. From my high school friend. From my Fordham friend. From my Australian friend. From my Hong Kong friend. From new grads. From chapter alumni. Just those first few gestures of kindness from different, current and recent students made me feel so happy and honored; seeing our chapter receive this kind of support was already the most fulfilling and special way I could have celebrated my birthday.
$210. I happy cried. I didn’t think my coworkers would particularly care, I was just an intern they had known for a matter of weeks. I was wrong. My mentor donated, vice presidents donated and I was speechless. People started “going” to the Facebook event. I sent updates via the fundraising page, posted updates and reminders on social media, shared with people I talked to and even got the fundraiser featured in a HerCampus article. People who otherwise would have left it at “happy birthday!” the day of were sharing the event, the page and the article. Donations came in unexpected amounts from unexpected people and places, and seeing the outpour of support was emotionally overwhelming in the best possible way.
My birthday fundraiser is running through the end of September, and minutes before midnight hit and my birthday started, we reached $2,101.21.
Why am I donating my 21st birthday? Because I care about seeing Fordham’s Engineers Without Borders succeed, and using my birthday as a platform to direct awareness and support to this fantastic organization is worth much more than going out for my 21st. And guess what? Donating my birthday has been by far the most fulfilling, memorable and happiest birthday I have ever had. As I write this, the fundraiser has $2,545. This is amazing, but at the same time, only a fraction of the costs our chapter needs to raise to go to Uganda and construct the next fish pond.
If you’d like to support, you can share or donate: support.ewb-usa.org/vanessas21st. And if you’d like to donate your birthday, I can’t recommend it enough.
Vanessa Gutierrez, FCRH ’18, is a computer science major from Los Angeles, California.