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Cottage Grove teen awarded for giving birthday bags to children in need

Cottage Grove Middle School student Julia Dorn, 14, has been packaging birthday bags for children in need since she was just 4 years old. The eighth-grader has doled out more than 1,000 bags. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

For many children, celebrating a birthday is a joyous occasion often filled with presents and a party. But for some whose families have limited means, even a small toy is unaffordable.

Compelled by something she saw when she had just turned 4 years old, Cottage Grove resident Julia Dorn, now 14, was determined to make sure every child could celebrate their birthday. Her efforts throughout the last decade were recently recognized when she was presented with U.S. Rep. John Kline’s Star of the North Award last week.

“We were driving in St. Paul one afternoon just after Julia’s birthday and ended up passing the Dorothy Day Center,” Julia’s mother Carolyn said. “There were men, women and children waiting outside. She saw one man using a newspaper for a pillow.”

Carolyn said Julia immediately began asking questions and wondered if those children were able to celebrate their birthday. Giving the answer to a difficult question posed by a 4-year-old was heartbreaking, Carolyn said, but necessary.

“We told her the truth and said that all of those children do have birthdays but that some don’t always get a present or get to celebrate,” she explained.

Wanting to help, Julia came up with the idea to make birthday bags for children of all ages. She started looking for gently used items at garage sales, meticulously scoured discounted sale racks, even looked through her closet for items.

“I felt bad knowing that I had just gotten lots of presents for my birthday and these kids get nothing,” Julia said. “I wanted to help that struggling parent that has had to say, ‘Well, nothing again this year, Tommy.’”

With the support of her parents, Julia began stockpiling items for both boys and girls and had a labeling system that made sure age- and gender-appropriate toys were packaged.

The project started small, Carolyn said. Julia made about a dozen the first time, then a dozen more, until finally her room was full of birthday bags.

“I’d say over the last 10 years she’s probably made more than 1,000 bags,” Carolyn said. “We do about three drop-offs a year.”

Julia chose to distribute the birthday bags locally at Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park and Neighbors Inc., in South St. Paul.

Now a decade later, Carolyn said she never thought Julia’s passion would remain this strong.

“Of course this makes us proud,” Carolyn said. “She was really moved by that whole experience (in St. Paul) and we have always reinforced what is right and good. We hope she is still doing this another 10 years from now.”

Her extraordinary act of kindness caught the attention of Kline’s office earlier this year, who was presenting several Star of the North awards. The honor recognizes individuals living in Minnesota’s 2nd District who have gone above and beyond to serve their community. Not looking for publicity, Julia said she was surprised when she received a letter in the mail informing her of the award.

“I was definitely surprised,” she said. “I was just doing what I thought was right. It was sad to see how people can be so selfish when there are others out there that have little or nothing.”

Packing up a birthday bag for a young girl last week, Julia filled the bright yellow tote with a crown, small pink snowglobe, scented Chapstick and a giant swirl sucker, an item that has become a birthday bag regular. While putting it together, she explained how one day she hopes to connect with a birthday bag recipient.

“I’ve always wanted to see their faces light up when they receive a birthday bag,” Julia said. “I just want to make them happy. Everybody deserves to celebrate their birthday.”

For more information about birthday bags, call Friends in Need Food Shelf at 651-458-0730 or Neighbors Inc., at 651-455-5000.