Red velvet, vanilla, chocolate. If you’re a Northland kid, Ally Kovach has got you covered.
The Cloquet woman started building and distributing cake kits at the start of the year to ensure area children could celebrate their birthdays with something sweet during the pandemic.
She recently donated 40 birthday boxes to the Cloquet Salvation Army, and she had ample donations to make more.
Kovach works in the social services sector, and she saw a need, as celebratory items aren’t often included in typical food shelf donations.
“Because they need a food shelf, does that mean they don’t deserve a birthday cake on their birthday? We don’t think to donate these things because these aren’t things we don’t get,” she said.
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One cake kit costs about $10 and includes a box of mix, cake pans from the dollar store, a can of soda (a substitute for eggs and oil), a container of frosting, sprinkles, candles and sometimes decorations such as paper streamers.
She posted her efforts on Facebook, and it “blew up,” she said.
People have donated full kits, individual items, or they’ve donated to her Venmo account; Kovach has received more than $500 to make more.
“It did not start out as a huge thing. I just wanted to make a difference for a couple kids,” she said.
It’s important to her to show her children, ages 8, 5 and 2, the importance of giving back to the community, so she has included them in the process. “The 2-year-old likes putting cans of pop in them. We have to make sure they only have one can of pop instead of 10.”
Asked how to support her efforts, Kovach said, “I don’t have to be the end-all, be-all facilitator of it. I wanted to get the idea out.
“They’re so easy to make. … It’s so needed now.”
Q: What’s your favorite cake flavor?
A: My favorite cake flavor is German chocolate with the coconut frosting.
Q: How did you celebrate birthdays growing up, and how do you celebrate it with your children?
A: Growing up, my family always made birthdays a big deal, even if we didn't have much. My parents let me pick wherever I wanted to go out to eat for dinner and order whatever I wanted. I even got dessert.
I don't remember the gifts or the parties, but I remember sitting across the table at Grizzly’s eating potato skins with my family every year, and it became an important tradition.
I wanted to provide that same special memory for my kids. We only get so many birthdays with them before they want to do their own thing.
Each (normal) year, we let the kids pick one special thing they want to do as a family. Usually, that looks like the trampoline park or the arcade, but it's a time that we make sure to stop worrying about what is going on around us and focus on what's right in front of us.
Q: You’ve involved your kiddos in these cake kits. What have been their takeaways?
A: Giving back has always been important to me, and I want to instill that in my kids too, so they have been involved in a lot of community projects as they have grown up, and they take a lot of pride in being able to contribute.
On a material level, they have really loved putting the baskets together and curating stories about the kids who would receive them and what sort of things they would like in their baskets. It makes them really consider people outside of themselves, and that is what I really want them to do at this age.
Q: What are your takeaways?
A: This past year has been hard. Between the pandemic, people losing jobs, the political climate, everything — 2020 was just really hard on everyone regardless of your situation.
I really think for a long time I was so focused on the worst in people. Social media was plastered with hatred and negativity, and it's all I could see.
I started doing this just to feel like I was contributing to something “good” in a sea of “bad,” but what I found was that there was so much more good out there that I hadn't been paying attention to.
People want to be good, and they want to be kind, and sometimes it's so easy to get sucked into the negativity that we forget we are all human beings and we just need to be kind.
When we spend all of our time and energy trying to decide who is right and who is wrong, we forget what matters. Seeing the response this project brought out in people made me see that I live in a community of people who truly do care about their neighbors.
Q: What does a birthday cake symbolize?
A: This year, it symbolizes a sense of normalcy and equity.
It doesn't matter if you are young or old, rich or poor, white or a person of color — everyone loves a slice of birthday cake on their birthday. It shows that someone cared enough to either bake or get you that cake, that they thought about you on your birthday.
Everyone deserves cake.
Q: What does your work in social services communicate about our needs in the Northland?
A: I think growing up I was very privileged to not understand the impact of hunger, homelessness and marginalization in our community. Through my education and now my work in nonprofits, I have been made much more aware of the system shortcomings that leave populations of people forgotten.
I know that as one person I cannot single-handedly fix systems to better serve the people who need it, but I can make small changes to support the people that I come in contact with and help where I can. It all starts with one small change at a time.
Q: Tips for others who may want to help.
A: Our community has so many needs, big and small, and even little acts of kindness and helpfulness stack up. See a need, any need, and brainstorm ways that you can help to make a difference to the people affected by that lack of resources.
If you don't have money to donate, consider volunteering your time with a community organization. If you don't have time, consider becoming involved in social media movements. There are so many things people can do to promote positive impacts, and it all starts with the desire to want to help.
Q: You can (safely) dine with three people, alive or dead. Who are they and why?
A: Brene Brown. I sound like a complete social work student with this one, but since watching her first TED talk, I've been completely wrapped up in every word she said. I listen to her podcasts, and she has such a deep connection with why people think and feel and act the way they do. I want to be as kind and empathetic and understanding as Brene Brown when I grow up.
Former President Barack Obama. Despite where people sit on the political spectrum, it's impossible to say that Obama wasn't influential and an inspiration. He laid the groundwork for really progressive policies to work against systemic oppression, and we could all learn a lot from him.
Ellen DeGeneres. I think she is hilarious, influential, and overall empathetic and kind.
- If people want to continue to donate, Kovach’s Venmo is @AllyKat_516, or contact her on Facebook, facebook.com/ally.kovach.