A woman we recently came to know and now admire and respect immensely, just turned sixty… the BIG 6-0. It’s hard to believe because she doesn’t look her age, and she can run circles around most 30 year olds. Such a milestone deserves a really special celebration. As I went to get ready for her birthday bash, rather than choosing the perfect party outfit and getting all done up, I threw on some old clothes, didn’t bother with make-up and pulled my hair back in a pony tail. I was ready for Brenda Berkman’s 60th birthday party, which would be orchestrated in classic Brenda Berkman style… she recruited her friends to join her in giving back with a day of service at Girls Prep Lower East Side Elementary School, the first all-girls charter school in New York City.
Volunteerism is an enormous part of the now retired FDNY Captain’s life. When Brenda is not in her printmaking studio creating art, she is doing A LOT for others… giving tours at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center to everyone from tourists to rescue workers, who come to reflect on the events of 9/11; doing speaking engagements with firefighters’ organizations around the county; delivering meals to the homes of people in need; spearheading various charitable projects for her church; working with Girls Prep, which serves 250 students in grades K-4… and so on. With all that in mind, her birthday party theme and directive makes perfect sense because putting other people before herself with genuine intention is what Brenda Berkman is all about.
As her early Saturday morning party began at Girls Prep, the birthday girl, who has a kindergarten classroom in the school named for her, happily greeted and welcomed everyone who was there for her and there to help… Girls Prep staff members, students and parents, along with Brenda’s friends, including one college pal who made the trip all the way from DC. The festivities kicked-off with a brief welcome by Shamis Abdi, the school’s Director of Operations, and Brenda. Volunteers, including the kids, signed up for different teams that tackled a variety of projects to improve the school: creating display art, reorganizing storage closets, relocating books to a new library space, beautifying and cleaning classrooms, painting stairwells, etc. We all pushed up our sleeves and got to work. The three hours we had went by very quickly and there was enough to do for us to have stayed all day. But, what we did accomplish made a noticeable impact and the school’s wonderful staff was truly grateful.
When the work was done, the more traditional birthday party activities got underway. We all feasted on pizza and sang Happy Birthday to Brenda as the school brought out a giant chocolate chip cookie cake with two candles for her to blow out. Before she made her birthday wish, Brenda, the former firefighter, jokingly said, “I’m glad you didn’t put 60 candles on the cake because it would have been a fire hazard.” Brenda personally thanked each of the girls, who worked so hard on their service projects that day, by giving them firefighters’ helmets to take home and wear proudly, like she did for 25 years in the FDNY.
It was a memorable day. It was a satisfying day. It was true celebration of giving. It was one of the most enjoyable birthday parties I have ever attended.
On the invitation for her Day of Service birthday party, Brenda asked those who could not attend to “please consider participating in a service project in your own community (send me a photo!)”. What a refreshing concept for a party and what an inspirational idea to impart on others.
Happy birthday Brenda Berkman and thank you for showing us that giving can be just as fun and rewarding as receiving, even on your own birthday.