SALEM — Hannah Finn, the daughter of a Lynnfield woman and a Peabody man, began the One Wish Project when she was just 14 years old as a way to host birthday celebrations for children in homeless shelters and foster care.
Finn began by baking cakes for eight children in a homeless shelter in Essex County to give to them on their birthdays, along with a few little gifts. Six years later, Finn’s nonprofit now hosts birthday celebrations for more than 600 children and will add 200 more through their new partnership with the Salem Department of Children and Families (DCF), which will begin in October.
“It’s amazing to see it grow over the past couple of years,” Finn said. “I wanted to take something that I enjoyed doing, which was baking, and I wanted to sort of use that to pay it forward.”
Going into her freshman year of high school, Finn saved up her babysitting money to pay for the birthday celebrations of eight to ten kids, only spending about $15 per kid, baking a cake, and buying them gifts from the dollar store.
“It was sort of just a little community service project. It wasn’t supposed to be anything as big as a nonprofit,” Finn said. “It just grew from there.”
About three months after she started, Finn got a call from another homeless shelter, asking if she could do the same thing with them, but for 60 kids.
Finn took on more babysitting gigs to pay for the celebrations and got her first donation from the kids she babysat.
Doing all of the baking herself while juggling freshman year and extracurricular activities, Finn needed some help with the unexpected growth of this soon-to-be nonprofit. She posted about what she was doing on Facebook and had some people reach out offering to help.
“I baked all of the cakes up until we reached about 200 kids and then I created a volunteer program,” Finn said.
She now has about 120 volunteers and is hoping to double that number within the next year as the One Wish Project expands to Salem.
Her volunteers come from Facebook or word of mouth, and have to apply through the One Wish Project website. Once chosen to be a volunteer – after going through a CORI check – they are added to a monthly distribution list that includes dates and information about the children, and volunteers can choose which child they want to provide a birthday celebration for.
“It means a lot to me, the kids, the volunteers, and the community,” Finn said. “To see how the child’s face lights up for something as little as a birthday celebration is really special to me.”
What began as a resume builder has since turned into a full-time job, but Finn said she is so happy to be able to celebrate with more children.
Finn is currently attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but wanted to see the One Wish Project continue running while she’s away. Finn’s mother, Claudia Mintz of Lynnfield, and the advisory board, which is made up of “three incredible women,” took over running the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit, including contacting the homeless shelters and foster homes and making sure volunteers have gifts and a cake for each child.
“I love it,” Mintz said. “I had no idea it was going to be where it is today when she started five and a half years ago and it’s grown tremendously… It’s something that we get to do together and I love it. I have never been this passionate about something in my whole life.”
In 2019, Finn won the Boston Celtics “Heroes Among Us Award,” which is given to someone in the community who is doing great things. She was able to attend a Celtics game and go onto the court to be recognized for this achievement.
“It was really cool,” she said.
Finn has also won other awards, including the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Youth Hero Award and The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards Bronze Award. Mintz said her and Finn’s father, Todd Finn of Peabody, are very proud of their daughter and how far the One Wish Project has come.
While Finn is sad she can no longer be at the celebrations in person since she is away at college, she is hearing second-hand feedback from the volunteers about how great the celebrations are.
“It’s not even that we’re just dropping off a birthday celebration, but we’re instilling this self-worth in these kids who might feel like they’re in such a dark, difficult time,” Finn said. “They’re going to school and they’re being dropped off by the bus stop in front of a homeless shelter and they’re going to school where all these kids are talking about these nice things that they have and they don’t even have something as simple as a birthday. So it’s to let them know that someone who cares about them is there for them on a day that they otherwise may not have been able to celebrate.”
The One Wish Project celebrates anywhere from five to 20 birthdays a month and is now able to spend $150 to $300 on gifts that the children ask for thanks to an annual gala fundraiser, sponsors, and donations.
Finn said they are always looking for more volunteers, especially some in the North Shore area now that they will be expanding to Salem. Anyone interested in volunteering can apply through the “Sponsor a birthday volunteer program” on the nonprofit’s website.
“I want to keep growing and try to get a ton of volunteers in different areas and would love to expand outside of Massachusetts at some point,” Finn said. “I really just want to continue celebrating more kids because there’s such a big need… We want to make sure that all across Massachusetts, and hopefully beyond that at some point, we can celebrate all these kids.”
Allysha Dunnigan can be reached at [email protected].