One Christmas, Jenny Williams sponsored a child from the Angel Tree program. Like many of us, Jenny gathered gifts for her little girl and took them to the Salvation Army. After staring at the packages for all the children, Jenny thought beyond December. She worried how Angel Tree families made it the rest of the year. Specifically, Jenny wondered how disadvantaged children celebrated birthdays — a big deal to every child. “If the parents are financially struggling during Christmas, birthdays probably present hard times as well,” she reasoned. At age 16, Jenny took these concerns to her parents who pushed her to do something about it.
Unsure of where to start, Jenny asked her church for help. A flood of volunteers quickly embraced the birthday vision. “Individuals who were passionate about impacting the community made donations. A lawyer gave his time to file for non-profit status, a real-estate developer donated office space, a Web designer created a Web site, and school clubs held fundraisers,” she shares. Through a lot of praying and planning, Jenny started Candle Wishes—a non-profit ministry dedicated to providing birthday parties for underprivileged children.
Six years later, Candle Wishes is still thriving in the Nashville, Tenn., area. Every month, the ministry finds children ages 1 to 12 through the Salvation Army’s list of approved Angel Tree families. Churches, parks, and businesses agree to host a party, while charitable groups sponsor the children.
There’s nothing really extravagant about the parties, but to the children who attend, it might as well be Disney World. Families are greeted by host volunteers. The birthday boys and girls wear colorful nametags and immediately feel special. All guests enjoy games, cake, food, and a gift bag. Sometimes a Christian video like the popular Veggie Tales plays in the background. Jenny and her volunteer staff MC the event, leading the crowd in the Happy Birthday song. Jenny also gets the opportunity to share about God’s love and lead the group in prayer. Children laugh and play, all the while eyeing the rows of presents lined up at the front. For some, this may be the first birthday they’ve ever celebrated. So far thousands of children have experienced a party because of Candle Wishes.
God in the Extraordinary
Jenny’s seen God show up in extraordinary ways since the ministry started. “God has shown me that, with Him, there are no coincidences. He orchestrates every detail and reveals Himself to us in a way that can’t be questioned but just observed with awe,” she shares. Specifically, Jenny recalls a little girl who had her bike stolen shortly before her birthday. “Desperate to give her daughter a special birthday, the mother turned to Candle Wishes for help,” Jenny recalls. “The Young Adult group at my home church adopted the girl and bought her a new bike. As we rolled the shiny, purple bike up to the family’s front door, the mother hugged us in relief and appreciation. The little girl ran through the house screaming in excitement.” The new bike happened to be identical to the bike that was stolen.
Candle Wishes serves parents as well as children. One particular time, a church sponsor gave away New Testaments. Because Candle Wishes ministers to people from diverse backgrounds, many of the Bibles were printed in different languages. Jenny recalls, “As the New Testaments began to disappear, the father of a Middle Eastern family attending the party came to me and asked if I had an Arabic Bible. Excited that he had asked, I explained that I didn’t have one with me, but I would get one for him.” At a later birthday party, Jenny spotted the man’s wife and approached her with the Arabic Bible. At first she was afraid to take it, but Jenny explained that her husband specifically requested it. Hearing that, the woman took it gratefully. “It’s amazing to think about how God may use this Bible and this father to spiritually impact his family and other Middle Eastern families in the community,” Jenny says.
After the Party
Despite the size and influence of Candle Wishes, it is not Jenny’s full time job. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University where she received a BBA with an emphasis in marketing, she is currently in the MBA program at MTSU and also serves as the marketing strategist for Threads, Lifeway’s Young Adult ministry. With so much to juggle, Jenny knows the importance of being intentional in maximizing her time. “Setting priorities in my life has been tremendously important to maintaining my sanity. It is easy to make time for something that you love. I also have a lot of help!” she says.
Candle Wishes operates strictly on a volunteer basis. Jenny must balance her monthly ministry opportunities with working full time and going to church, building friendships, etc. Why devote so much time to a ministry that offers no financial gain? Jenny’s biggest inspiration is helping those in need. “Aside from providing the means and people to make Candle Wishes a reality, God gave me a kind of compassion for people who are hurting and in need that can only come from Him,” she confesses.
God-given compassion fuels Jenny to minister to as many people as possible through Candle Wishes. She proves that God uses us right now, regardless of our age or resources. Jenny also reveals that people are hungry to get involved. Hundreds of volunteers, donors, churches, and sponsors receive blessings by giving to Candle Wishes. Often people need leadership like Jenny’s to inspire them to take action. Whatever God has called you to do, don’t wait.
For more information about middle Tennessee’s Candle Wishes program, or to contact Jenny about starting a Candle Wishes ministry in your area, check out candlewishes.org.