A small child’s birthday party, however well-intentioned, can be a time of serious materialism and excess.

So when a group of moms at St. Jerome Catholic Church, Oconomowoc, discovered that, between the two sections of the parish school’s K5, there were five September birthdays to be celebrated, they decided to take an unorthodox approach: a birthday service project.

“I was talking to one mom and she was talking to another mom and we kind of discovered like, wow, we have five September birthdays,” said Jane Kearney, whose son Jeremy is in K5 at St. Jerome. “We thought what better way, if we really wanted to instill the spirit of giving, than to have a September birthday service project?”

Jeremy Kearney, along with fellow September birthday kids Sunny Murray, Maria Jorgensen, Madelyn Flegner and Chanel Cullinane, invited everyone in their class to a special kind of celebration in Marian Hall on Sept. 26 – one that wouldn’t mean any presents for the birthday boy and girls, but would instead benefit needy schoolchildren a world away.

Guests were asked to bring six new or gently used crayons and pencils to the party, to be put in a “blessing box” and donated to an underprivileged school in Madagascar. A longtime friend of the Kearneys, Fr. Jeremy Morais (for whom Jeremy Kearney is named), has worked as a missionary in the country for more than 20 years with the La Salette organization, and the blessing box will be sent to him to distribute.

“I think we kind of know that our families and the kids are really so blessed, so we kind of wanted to pay it forward a little bit,” said Kearney. All the guests brought more than six donations, and one little girl even donated a rosary she had made.

At the party, the kids also painted stones to decorate the St. Jerome kindergarteners’ playground, an idea developed by Sunny’s mom, Sandra.

“We wanted to do good near and far,” said Kearney.

The kids also ate cupcakes, played musical chairs and bingo and traced their handprints on a world map to represent the blessing box’s impending journey. Most of the guests were already well acquainted with the country, said Kearney – “Because when they heard ‘Madagascar,’ you know, they thought of the movie!”

Fr. John Yockey, pastor of St. Jerome, blessed the guests and the blessing box and led the students in a rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” He said he couldn’t be more proud of the K5 students and their parents.

“I’m biased about St. Jerome Parish and School, but we are a very generous community of faith on many levels,” he said, citing the schoolchildren’s regular donations of nonperishable food items to the St. Vincent de Paul Society pantry, as well as to the parish-wide drives in which groceries, clothing, school supplies and other necessities for those in need are collected.

“Our children and teens actively participate in every charity we promote. Hopefully, they learn from little onward that faith in action prioritizes compassion for the poor, the sick and the elderly, both here in the Lake Country and beyond,” he said.

“Every morning at St. Jerome’s they say, ‘We’re going to follow Jesus in our thoughts, words and actions today,’” agreed Kearney. “I kind of think this really shows that we are doing it in our actions. This is something that Jesus would want us to do.”

Fr. Yockey is a former teacher of Fr. Jeremy Morais, and was happy the kindergarteners learned about the needs of children in other parts of the world.

“This focus on Madagascar gave them an early awareness that our brothers and sisters in Jesus are all over our wonderful world,” he said.

The moms hope the September birthday service project will become an annual tradition.

“The kids are in kindergarten now, so really, they’re just starting,” said Kearney. “Wouldn’t that be fun to think how this could grow with them each year, and how much more they could become involved with the whole process?”