The idea came to Julia Dorn sometime around her fourth birthday.
She was running errands with her mother when they drove past the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, where she saw a long line of men, women and children waiting for a hot meal and a bed for the night. Julia turned to her mother and asked what she could do to help.
"I asked Mom: 'Do they get birthday presents, too?' And she said, 'No, not most of the time,' " Julia, now 14, said last week. "And so I said, 'Well, that's not very fair; everyone should get a birthday present, even if they're homeless.' "
Later, Julia told her mother she wanted to help other, less fortunate children experience the joy of opening presents on their birthdays. So the two went out and bought a bundle of toys, which they stuffed into party bags and dropped off at local shelters and food shelves.
Ten years later, the Cottage Grove girl is still at it, leaving birthday bags by the dozens at shelters across the Twin Cities and winning smiles.
That generosity recently caught the attention of U.S. Rep. John Kline, who will honor Julia this week with the Star of the North Award, given annually to do-gooders from across Kline's Second Congressional District, which includes West St. Paul, South St. Paul and parts of Inver Grove Heights.
The award, which was started eight years ago to recognize Minnesotans who had helped in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, is given to residents "for the random acts of kindness they've done to help their neighbors and those in need," said Troy Young, a spokesman for Kline.
While Julia doesn't live in Kline's district, she has dropped off birthday bags to a shelter there.
"That's a really neat thing for a 14-year-old girl to recognize that there's things that she can do for the homeless and homeless children and to take the initiative" to help them, Young said.
A ceremony honoring the recipients will be held Feb. 13 in Lakeville.
Other winners this year include a 10-year-old girl from New Prague who donated her hair to Locks of Love — a group that makes wigs for children with medical hair loss — and another Cottage Grove teenager who saved his father by using CPR.
Hundreds of bags
For years, Carolyn Dorn drove her daughter around town to garage sales and department stores to keep up with the mounting number of bags the pair were making.
Some years, Julia Dorn said, the two dropped off as many as 400 bags.
"She was old enough to understand that other kids didn't get what she had," Carolyn Dorn said, adding that she was heartened that her daughter decided to continue adding to the project.
"A lot of times at age 14, you see kids dropping out of sports, you see them changing their minds about many things," she said.
Julia said she plans to continue to make the bags while balancing the demands of high school, which she'll enter next year.
"I'd like to start doing it for adults, too," she said. "I think that'd be cool."
Although she has not been able to see firsthand the effect of her project on the gift recipients, she said she is thrilled by its success.
Because of privacy concerns, Julia hasn't been able to deliver the gift bags in person to Neighbors Inc., in South St. Paul, and the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park.
But officials at both sites have assured her that her generosity hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I just imagine their faces when they get it and it makes me really happy," she said. "I know that some people don't even give a second thought about some of the people who don't receive presents on their birthdays."
Additional information about Julia's program can be found by contacting Neighbors Inc. or Friends in Need Food Shelf.