Skip To Main Content

Haven and Hope

Birthday Cake with candles

The O-School celebrates growth as much as possible as our students progress through our program. One way in which we celebrate growth is perhaps the most literal – but also one of the most important – the celebration of birthdays.

For young people, a birthday can be one of the most important days of the year. We all remember obsessing about the “big birthdays” – 10, 13, 16, 18! Each age had meaning, and we contemplated how that significance was reflected in our new sense of self, our ongoing personal evolution. Even kids who can’t put these feelings into words experience the significance of birthdays, and they both rejoice in and struggle with the weight of new expectations and freedoms.

For students in residential treatment – or those in a therapeutic, educational setting – birthdays can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is the hope of another year – a clean slate, a moment to embrace the future and all its potential. For many of our students who have had difficult or challenging past experiences, this sense of a fresh start – a new year – is comforting and comes with feelings of optimism and opportunity.

On the other hand, however, we sometimes see helplessness or hopelessness set in around birthdays – especially big birthdays. We’ve heard these expressions of grief many times from our students – Why can’t I be home with my family and friends? No other 16-year old would celebrate in this way – I should be out partying with other kids! Another year with nothing accomplished – will I ever get to be a “real teenager”?  It’s understandable that our students might feel this way. For those who use birthdays as a time to take stock of one’s life – finding oneself in residential treatment or in a mental health crisis (and not celebrating with friends and family at home) can elicit a real sadness.

Regardless of a student’s response, it’s our job to try to make the day special. For those who are feeling optimistic – let’s celebrate! For those who are not – could we still try to find a way to feel positive on that day (cake and gifts never hurt anyone!) – and talk about how we can use this year to make sure the next birthday feels better than this one?

To ensure we’re having as much adult-sponsored fun as a teenager will allow, we make sure that the student has a special day, complete with some personalized treats. The student receives gifts from his/her/their family (and some small stuff from us!) – and will usually have a scheduled phone or video call to celebrate together.  Depending on the situation, some students might have a day visit (to go out to a restaurant) on his/her/their birthday.

Regardless, every student has an assigned Birthday Meal, which is the centerpiece of the O-School birthday celebration.

First, the student gets to invite a special staff member to be his/her/their Birthday Guest. This is a true honor for any staff member and a wonderful moment to share with a student. Then, the student gets to request (within reason!) their perfect birthday meal – which will be served to the entire school for either lunch or dinner, depending on if the student is in our day school or residential program. Before the meal begins, the student stands up with his/her/their Birthday Guest to listen to the entire school sing them Happy Birthday – with a special second verse, handed down as O-School tradition (Many wishes to you. Many wishes to you. Many wishes, dear ______.  Many wishes to you!).

Once the song is over, there is a massive round of applause, candles are blown out, and the student sits down with his/her/their dorm or classroom (and Birthday Guest) to enjoy their favorite foods, prepared by our amazing Kitchen Team. Usually, the meals are classic kid food (pizza, tacos, burgers, hot dogs) – but sometimes we get a student who goes outside the box. We’ve seen make-your-own nachos, salmon and asparagus, beef wellington, orange chicken, and just about everything else! Some students go for a more traditional birthday cake, while others go for cookies, pie, ice cream, or other sweet treats. No one leaves hungry after a Birthday Meal!

It’s true that birthdays in a therapeutic setting don’t provide particularly wild parties, but, at the O-School, they are filled with heart and a desire to make the day special for that individual student. We all have big feelings around getting older, but, hopefully, we can also take the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on getting through another year and strive to keep an optimistic spirit and a growth mindset, no matter how many candles are on the cake.

Author Ellie Badesch, MUPP, serves as Director of Compliance and Special Projects for the O-School. To learn more about the O-School’s residential and day programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s or BWC’s services, please visit our contact page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.

  • O-School
  • Residential treatment
  • Therapy
  • anxiety
  • autism
  • depression
  • emotional and mental health issues
  • emotional disability
  • family therapy
  • mental health
  • mental health treatment


Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.

Date Range