Tag Archives: love wins

My Birthday Project – UPDATE


This year for my 35th birthday I embarked on a project and committed to doing 35 intentional acts of kindness and giving the gift of myself to others – cuz that doesn’t sound conceited at all. Ha! As of today, three days after my birthday, I’ve completed 27 acts of kindness. I still have eight more things to go and I’m hoping to finish them all by December 31!

It’s been a really interesting experience. It’s been more intimidating than I ever thought it would be, especially for an outgoing person like me. How do you just go up to someone and tell them you’re going to do something for them without them thinking you’re crazy, rude or condescending.

My first shot at the whole thing was on Black Friday. “Perfect!” I thought. I loaded my purse with chocolate and intended to give it out to harried store clerks. My first stop was Starbucks for some coffee. I desperately wanted to buy coffee for the girl behind me, but she was giving off a vibe of “don’t talk to me,” so I didn’t say anything. She was the only person behind me, and there were only two people in front of me, but suddenly the whole store filled up with this gigantic line of people, all of them had angry eyes. They scared me. Seriously though, this one woman came in to pick up coffee for a group and she was going on and on about how she tried to come through the drive through first and a woman tried to cut her off so she flipped her the finger and dared the woman to hit her because, “You will see just what an impolite person I can be.” I nodded and gave a half sympathetic smile, but really I was thinking, “How sad!” This woman had an opportunity to do something kind and instead she chose to do the exact opposite. Ugh. So finally, when my coffee came up I half threw three Take 5 candy bars across the counter and said, “This if for you and the other baristas, I’m sure it’s been crazy!” The barista was super excited and sweet. Whew. But the people behind me still had angry eyes. Oh well.

On the Saturday after Black Friday I was in Target and caving to that unbelievable popcorn smell that I swear they pipe through the store. There was a couple in front of me counting out change to buy a bag of popcorn, a juice and a chocolate milk. I stood there for a bit trying to figure out how I could pay for their things when they were in front of me. Finally I just kind of went up to the cashier and said, “I’m paying for theirs, too.” And the woman and the cashier both nodded at me like they understood, but I could tell they had no idea what I was talking about. So I said again, “I’m going to get popcorn, but I’m going to pay for theirs as well. It’s my birthday in a few weeks and I’m doing kind things for other people.” The cashier couldn’t believe it and the woman said, “That makes me feel like it’s MY birthday!” Win!

One of my BFFs asked me what my favorite act of kindness was so far, and it’s still Lisa. Hands down. Lisa sent me a text on Sunday, Dec. 8 – one of the first days that we got snow this season. She said, “Yay for snow! I am trying out my new boots today.” It totally made me smile. I love thinking of her in those boots whenever it snows.

My experience with Lisa makes up for the awkwardness at the Dollar Store where I took the two older girls to help me place $1 bills around the store. I approached the teenage checker and explained, “I’d like to put dollar bills on items around the story as a project for my birthday where I’m doing kind things for other people.” Confused silence ensued. Finally, she said, “Um. I don’t know if we’re still doing that.” Suddenly, I was the confused one. Incredulously I said, “You mean, there are other people putting money on things for their birthday??” More confused silence. “Um, I don’t know. I’m new here. Let me get my manager.” The manager was nice, but still confounded by what I was asking to do. Finally she got on board, but the whole thing was just awkward and the girls were being seriously annoying and I just felt like my shouting at them in the store, “WE ARE HERE TO DO NICE THINGS FOR OTHER PEOPLE, WOULD YOU STOP GRABBING EVERYTHING,” was a little contradictory with what we were there to do.


The items the girls picked out.


The picture is deceiving. I was utterly annoyed with their behavior in the store.

A few other observations: it’s so much easier to do things that involve money. It requires less time and thinking. But I don’t necessarily think it’s better. I think it’s a good thing to spend a little time and thinking. You really mean it then, I think.

Which brings me to my second thought. A lot of my things have involved money because damn, my birthday is RIGHT BEFORE Christmas and there is NO TIME. The no time thing is the biggest reason I dislike having my birthday right before Christmas. You may remember I wrote about that a few years ago (OMG, I sound like such a brat). But seriously, there are so many other things going on, that it’s been difficult to devote as much time to thinking about cool things to do, and instead I’ve opted to go broke spend money. Not tons of money, but still.

Which brings me to my third thought. I guess what’s been to my advantage of doing this around Thanksgiving and Christmas is that there are naturally a lot of opportunities for giving.

My final observation for tonight is that this experience has taught me just how conscious of a choice it is to be kind. We can choose to engage with people, or we can choose to just go about our own business. Not that it’s rude, necessarily, to just go about your business, but the opportunities for showing kindness are pretty limited when you don’t engage with people. I’m not saying that we always need to pay for things for other people, but the simple gesture of smiling, making an accommodation, showing patience, engaging in a discussion – those are all worthwhile acts of kindness. And they’re free! But they’re hard. Because sometimes we’re just not in the mood, or we’re having a bad day, or it’s just EASIER to not say anything. My friend Sara thinks that as a society we’re conditioned to not pay attention to other people and just go about our own business. And it is easier. For sure. But I think it almost makes it more worthwhile when we do something kind when it’s not easy, right?

I donated blood for one of my acts of kindness and the tech who worked with me was pretty quiet ­­– straightforward, buttoned up, seemed like she was tired and maybe not having the best day. I could have just politely answered her questions, sat there quietly and donated. But I pushed myself to make small talk. I went out of my comfort zone to keep making conversation even though it made it harder for me. It turned out that we had things in common, including going to the same high school, and we even knew some of the same people. By the time I was done donating, she seemed happier, more talkative and smiley. So even though I’m not counting these types of engagements on my official list of acts of kindness, I am pushing myself to engage with everyone and it really is a choice and it really is HARD.

Here’s my list so far:

  1. Gave Lisa the boots
  2. Gave the Starbucks baristas Take 5 candy bars
  3. Gave the girl behind me in line at Kohl’s my extra $10 coupon instead of separating my purchases into two transactions and using it myself
  4. Bought five pairs of slippers for Dignity Bags that will be distributed to victims of sex trafficking in Milwaukee
  5. Waved a driver looking for a parking spot into my spot at Target on Black Friday
  6. Gave a shopper my cart as I was leaving the store when there weren’t anymore
  7. Bought customers’ popcorn and drinks at Target
  8. Donated $30 to the International Justice Mission (the cost of an aftercare bag) on #GiveBackTuesday to help victims of modern-day slavery and trafficking
  9. Bought a $10 grocery bag for the food pantry 

    Helping put the bag of food into the bin for the food pantry.

  10. Donated a toy to the Cardiac ICU at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in honor of dear Sadie
  11. Donated $5 to a college student who was short on his semester tuition and couldn’t ask his parents for help because his parents have disowned him for being gay
  12. Donated gloves, a hat and gently used toys to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission’s Joy House (the girls helped me go through all their toys and we ended up with a HUGE box)  

    Gently used clothes and toys for Joy House.


    Blankets, hats, gloves, books and art supplies for the kids at Joy House.

  13. Donated change to Coins for Caring at Peace Lutheran for a student’s mom who underwent a double lung transplant (the girls donated from their piggy banks, too)
  14. Donated new toys and new gloves/hat at Allenton Elementary for local families in need (the girls came with me to the store to pick out the hat and gloves) 

    New toys for families at school.

  15. Donated blood Image
  16. Left 10 $1 bill on items at the Dollar Store
  17. Gave Take 5 candy bars to the workers at the DMV when I went to renew my license (the VERY stoic woman cracked a half of a smile)
  18. Complimented a stranger on her earrings (they were awesome)
  19. Went through our Christmas decorations and donated things that we weren’t using to a friend who was collecting things for her friend who didn’t have anything; I got word today that this woman LOVED the wreath that I donated. Yay!!! 

    Box-o-Christmas decorations on their way to a better home.

  20. Left a special note for my massage therapist who has been going through a hard time for the last couple of years, and who I felt really needed to hear that she has value and that she is worth it
  21. Paid for a few groceries for someone who was paying with a WIC check
  22. Gave my mom flowers on my birthday as a thank you for going through labor and having me J
  23. Gave my grandma flowers on my birthday as a thank you for going through labor and having my MOM! (my dad rolled his eyes at the whole thing)
  24. Tipped our servers 35% on our family birthday pizza dinner outing
  25. Gave our servers some of the chocolate peanut butter brownie cupcakes my mom made and one of the servers said, “You made my NIGHT!”
  26. Donated my birthday gifts from family and friends to Exploit No More (I think the total is around $300)
  27. Upped the ante on my annual “Make my grumpy UPS man smile,” game and included a $5 Starbucks gift card with the usual holiday package of homemade goodies that I leave for him (really, it’s the least I can do given the number of things I’ve ordered from Amazon.com alone this year)

So, like I said, eight more things to go and 12 more days before Dec. 31. I have ideas for the remaining things, but let me know if you have suggestions!

Oh and P.S. I just realized it now, but I totally didn’t miss opening birthday presents. I really didn’t. I had a FANTASTIC birthday dinner with all of our family members, minus the ones who live far away, and my two best friends and their families. It was perfection.


“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale

Love wins. ❤

Donate to Exploit No More

Donate to Exploit No More for a Christmas Ornament

Donate to the International Justice Mission


My Birthday Project


I posted an ad on Craig’s List earlier this week for a pair of Nine West black winter boots in size 11.  I posted the ad a year ago, too, and never even got any inquiries. Probably because they’re a size 11, which is not a common size for women’s shoes. I bought them in hopes that they would fit my size 10 wide feet, but it turned out they were just too big. They were expensive – I think $90 – and they were my birthday present from Eric that year. I was bummed that I had spent so much money on them and then only wore them a few times, but not bummed enough endure sore heels. After putting them back in the box and storing them in the basement, I really didn’t give them a second thought. The money had been spent. It didn’t work out. Oh well.

On a whim, I reposted my Craig’s List ad on Tuesday. I was asking $25 for the boots. On Tuesday evening I had an inquiry from Lisa. She was interested in purchasing the boots this week. She didn’t live near me though, and we agreed to meet in Menomonee Falls on Friday when I would be out shopping after Thanksgiving. But then I found out that she actually worked in Brookfield, near the mall, and would be trying to make it to Menomonee Falls and back to work again on her lunch hour on Friday – on her lunch hour on Black Friday, from one crazy traffic shopping mecca to another. I just didn’t think it was going to work. Lisa and I talked on the phone this morning and I realized that I was taking the kids to Betty Brinn Children’s Museum today and could meet her even closer to her work – today, instead of Friday. She sounded stunned when I offered to meet her today so that she wouldn’t have to drive so far. She said, “Really? Are you serious? That would be so awesome.”

Then she went on to tell me that she just really wanted to get these boots because she had been looking for winter boots for two years and these were really nice quality for such a reasonable price, and in her size (!), and she was afraid that if she waited longer to get them from me, that another person would buy them before she could.

I was thinking that I doubted that anyone else would have wanted to buy the boots given that I got exactly zero inquiries last time I posted them. But she so excited about them.

I hung up the phone and immediately knew what I was going to do. I was going to meet Lisa, and I was going to give her the boots. I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I sensed that Lisa didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t need that $25. I decided it was going to be the first thing on My Birthday Project list.

About nine months ago I discovered a group on Facebook called The Birthday Project. The group was founded by a woman who decided that on her birthday she would give the gift of herself to others. The project has exploded (more than 20,000 people like the page), and all over the country people are celebrating their birthdays with intentional acts of kindness and by loving others. And, you don’t even need to go out of your way for someone on your birthday. The group encourages people to be intentionally kind and to love others whether it’s their birthday or not. It’s kind of an amazing group. Gratefulness, kindness, love. All things our world could use more of. The project wants to change the world one birthday at a time.

This year is a milestone birthday for me, I guess – 35. It seems like it should be a milestone, anyway. I decided nine months ago that on my next birthday I would do 35 Intentional Acts of Kindness.

And today was the first one.

It was amazing.

I met Lisa in a parking lot and right away she started opening her wallet. I said, “You probably should try them on just to make sure they fit, right?” And she said, “Oh, okay. I’m sure it will be fine.” She tried one boot on and said, “Yep, they fit!” As she was putting her shoe back on, I bent down to put the boots back in the box and stood up while Lisa was going through her wallet again.

“Lisa, don’t worry about it. I just want you to have these.”

Her face. Stunned.

“Are you serious?”

I told her that my birthday was coming up and that I had decided that I was going to do intentional acts of kindness for others.

I said, “You were just so excited about these boots when we spoke on the phone and I just felt like you were meant to have them.”

And then she gave me the biggest, hardest, longest hug I’ve ever received from a complete stranger. And then she hugged me again.

I told her that she could pay it forward some day and she said, “I will! God bless you.”

After I pulled away, I got a text from Lisa: “I’m just in shock Jen, that anyone would do such a generous thing for me. I don’t know how to say thank you enough. I have been looking for boots for so long.”

To be able to do something like that for someone else and have them appreciate it so much, makes me feel amazing. I’m getting teary right now thinking about how grateful Lisa is to have warm boots on her feet and I’m so happy that I was able to help her.

In keeping with my birthday theme this year, I also decided a few months ago that I wanted anyone who would normally have purchased a birthday gift for me to instead donate it to a worthy organization. I had a short list of organizations, and then a few weeks ago as I was sitting in a church committee meeting, I knew. Exploit No More.

The State of Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, has one of the highest recovery rates for child victims of sex trafficking in the United States. Yes, sex trafficking is a horrific problem in poor foreign countries like India, Congo and Iran. But it’s happening here, in Wisconsin. And it’s not just an urban issue. It’s happening in every county in Wisconsin. Including here, in Washington County, because no one is looking for it here. Sex trafficking is roughly a $32 billion dollar industry worldwide.

The traffickers make very strategic moves to form relationships with vulnerable girls. Many times the girls feel like the pimp is their boyfriend. The girls are manipulated to think that their pimp is the only one who loves them and that the girl’s family will never want them back once they know what they’ve done. The pimps regularly ply the girls with alcohol and other drugs because they don’t want the girls to be thinking much about what they’re doing.

Again, it’s not just an urban issue. There are websites and message boards where pimps brag about their ability to lure young affluent white girls.

The youngest girls get the highest price.

Girls as young as 10 or 11.

It just makes you sick.

I started following this issue on an International level about a year ago, and when my church started a committee to address the issue locally I felt like it was something I was meant to be a part of.

Exploit No More was formed in May 2013 by a number of Milwaukee-area churches wondering how the church could impact local children affected by sex trafficking. This summer the group hired its Executive Director. She is the only paid staff person. You can read more about all of Exploit No More’s goals, but their biggest effort right now is to raise funds to purchase a home for long-term residential aftercare for girls rescued from sex trafficking in the Milwaukee metro area.

What Exploit No More heard most from law enforcement was, “Why should we keep rescuing these girls if they have no place to go afterwards. They just end up going back because they don’t know what else to do.”

Exploit No More is hoping to change that. Exploit No More wants to have a safe place where these girls can live and recover for at least 18 months. A place where the girls can be deprogrammed and learn that they are loved and they do have value.

I realize this is an awful issue. Everyone involved realizes it’s an awful issue. It’s not easy to talk about. Certainly not something to discuss at your Christmas party or the dentist’s office.

But my God, I just cannot imagine a world where my three daughters could end up victimized and enslaved that way. I just cannot imagine it. And I don’t want anyone to have to endure it.

Which is why this year I’m asking all my friends and family members who would have gotten me a birthday gift to instead donate that money to Exploit No More so they can get their house and start helping girls.

When I was thinking about doing this, I asked myself – “Are you really sure that you want to give up the fun of getting gifts for your birthday? Are you going to be disappointed?”

Because believe me, I’m no martyr. I love my birthday. I love getting gifts. Who doesn’t?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized – I have everything. I don’t need anything. And with Christmas right around the corner, would I really rather stockpile gift certificates for massages and facials, more jewelry and scarves, over giving some girl a warm bed and a positive person in her life telling her she is loved? No. I would give up all the facials in the world if it meant someone could be freed of sex trafficking and taught that they have value.

If any of my friends or family members who wouldn’t ordinarily have gotten me a birthday gift feel inclined to donate to Exploit No More, that would be wonderful. In fact, right now they’re giving away these awesome Christmas ornaments to everyone who donates a minimum of $25.

I really wish there was a way to track the donations people are making on behalf of my birthday, but unfortunately there’s no way to do that unless I use an outside organization that would take a percentage of the donations. I think it would be fun to know the final tally, so if you donate and you feel inclined, send me a Facebook message or email at jenovotny(at)gmail.com and let me know so I can keep track!

I still need to make up the rest of the things on My Birthday Project list. I have a few ideas and I’m going to scour The Birthday Project Facebook pages for other ideas. If you have any idea for me, let me know!

I know sometimes I feel like the problems of the world are so overwhelming. That there’s nothing I could possibly do to change or impact anything.

Exploit No More’s Executive Director left us with this quote:

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale

When it feels overwhelming, I will remember Lisa’s face and her hug. I will think about her wearing those boots in this cold and snow. I will remember her gratitude and how easy it was to make her feel valued for nothing more than the fact that she’s human.

Love and peace.

Happy Thanksgiving.

P.S. Literally, just as I was proofreading this and getting ready to post it, I got an email from Lisa:


Still in such amazement. Just got home from work and looked at my new boots again. Wow. I believe it must be the Lord God you hear leading your heart to be so generous. You really understand every syllable of “thanks” & “giving”.  May He return the blessing 7 fold.

Hope you & children had a terrific afternoon at the museum.


Love wins.

Donate to Exploit No More

Donate for a Christmas Ornament