Mandi Simon has been to more birthday parties than the average 11-year-old in Minnesota.
That’s because she is the founder of Simon Says Give, a nonprofit organization that gives birthday parties and school supplies to low-income children. Her charity has been so successful that the Jefferson Awards Foundation, a national organization that recognizes youth leadership and problem solving, named Mandi one of its 2015 GlobeChangers.
“I knew I wanted to help kids, but I wasn’t sure how,” said Mandi, a sixth-grader at Convent of the Visitation School. “Since my birthday was coming up, I thought of birthdays.”
Simon Says Give offers two kinds of parties: in person parties, which are hosted at community organizations like the YMCA, and parties in a box, which are given to local shelters. The nonprofit provides a cake or cake mix and two presents. One gift is something practical like a coat, and the other is purely for fun.
The group has provided 500 birthday parties so far and hopes to fund another 500 parties in 2015.
“I really like getting to see the faces on kids when they have a birthday,” said Mandi, who has become friends with some of the families she’s met through the program. “I wanted to give them a birthday party or at least a few hours to celebrate themselves.”
And while Mandi’s dream for Simon Says Give started with birthday parties, it’s the group’s school supplies initiative — High Five for Supplies — that has really taken off.
Each summer, Simon Says Give puts collection bins in businesses across the metro where people can donate new backpacks and school supplies. The charity also collects money and buys supplies directly. Last year, High Five for Supplies gave supply-stuffed backpacks to 10,000 Minnesota students.
Mandi came up with the idea for Simon Says Give four years ago when she was just 7 years old.
One day, she was hanging out in the kitchen while her mother, Dina Simon, was washing dishes. Mandi started telling her mother about her plan to start a business that would raise money to help other children.
At first, Simon was only half-listening, but she said the more detailed Mandi’s plan got, the more she paid attention.
“I asked her to stop, and I grabbed my iPad, and I did a 10 minute interview with her,” Simon said. Over the next six months, Mandi and Simon talked about the plan over and over again.
“She wanted to make the decisions,” Simon said. “If she raised $1,000 she wanted to make sure that it went into the hands of kids somehow … versus just donating $1,000 and never knowing where the money goes.”
Eventually, they decided that the best way for Mandi to have control over how the money she raised would be by establishing her own nonprofit. Simon Says Give has been growing ever since. It sponsors birthday parties, gives away school supplies and coaches students on effective fundraising for charity. Last year, it took in more than $1 million in donations and in-kind gifts.
As a Jefferson Awards GlobeChanger, Mandi has made a commitment to expand her nonprofit’s work outside Minnesota’s borders. In order to meet that goal, Simon Says Give is looking for partners in other states and aspiring to increase the school supplies program from 10,000 to 50,000 backpacks this year, with a goal of reaching 40,000 students outside of Minnesota.
Simon Says Give also is trying to grow the network of young people volunteering and fundraising. The charity, which is run by a board of adult volunteers, is putting together a children’s advisory board to keep the group sustainable and connected to the children it aims to serve.
With a new program called Kids in Action, Simon Says Give is offering training and support to young people who want to raise money for the organization or pursue another idea for helping children.
“A big thing when you’re raising money at that young of an age is having a solid support system around,” said Jordan Dahlke, the newly hired coach for Kids in Action. “What motivates kids to do this is seeing the impact they can have.”
As Simon Says Give has grown, Mandi has taken on more of a public leadership role. As a GlobeChanger, Mandi recently spoke at a national conference on philanthropy. It was a big crowd, full of powerful people. But Mandi has spent so much time talking up the organization, she said, that she was hardly nervous at all.
Simon Says Give is a significant time commitment for Mandi, especially during the summer when the group focuses on donations for High Five for Supplies.
“It’s like another job,” Simon said. But “we work really hard behind the scenes to support her so that she can still be a kid, and do the things kids do too.”
Dylan Peers McCoy is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.