Mary Barnes, volunteer cake baker

Barnes helps bring local kids cakes on their birthdays through Cake4Kids, a nonprofit.

PHOTO courtesy of mary barnes

Learn more about Cake4Kids at

For many kids, birthdays are one day out of the year to feel special. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for all. Today, 58 percent of the nation’s unsheltered homeless youth reside right here in the Golden State, according to a 2017 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But there’s one program that aims to make birthdays memorable for everyone: Cake4Kids. This nonprofit currently operates in 10 California cities, working with 140 different agencies that service foster youth, immigrants, refugees and victims of sex-trafficking with one goal: gifting kids cakes on their birthdays. Sacramento ambassador, Mary Barnes, helped bring Cake4Kids to the area in July and delivered its first cake to a child in August. With 32-and-counting volunteer bakers, the program has delivered nearly two dozen cakes so far. Barnes says a simple cake is just one way to ensure a child’s birthday isn’t just another ordinary day, but one to always remember. SN&R spoke with Barnes about the memories Cake4Kids creates for children, and she even shares some nifty decorating tips for interested volunteers.

How were birthdays growing up for you?

I’m one of seven children, and we lived in North Sac. My mom still lives there, and like any working-class family, things were tight; especially with so many mouths to feed and so many birthdays. Our birthday was really the one day that we got to ourselves, where we didn’t have to do any chores, and we got to pick what we had for dinner. … It was one day out of the year that was just for us, where we got the attention from our family, and it was really special.

How has Cake4Kids made an impact on children’s lives here?

The children that we service come from very difficult backgrounds. When they tackle so much adversity, and they’ve had to go through so much … at least we’re providing a happy moment for them. Personally, it’s important to help those children feel important and included, and baking birthday cakes is the way we do that. We’ve had thank-yous, and stories received from guardians and parents of these children, and how not every year they get a birthday cake.

Where does the baking take place?

The volunteer bakers bake from home and use their supplies, and they deliver the cake within a two-hour window to the [partnering] agency. So you bake from home on your own schedule and pick the deliveries that work for you. The agencies we work with will send happy birthday cake requests to Cake4Kids online, and then our bakers sign up. We do expect some level of being able to decorate a cake. But volunteers volunteer their time, their supplies and skills, all from home.

What’s the most popular cake flavor or theme?

They vary because [of] the children we make them for: all types of boys, girls and all kinds of ages. We actually bake cakes for up to a 20-year-old because you can be in the foster system that long. The most popular theme this past year was superheroes, which beat out Frozen, our most popular theme for the past three years.

Do you have any nifty cake decorating tips?

Every Tuesday, I post a tip for our bakers [on our Facebook page]. Right now, all of our cakes have actually been vegan—all of them requested. So that’s been a challenge right from the beginning for our bakers. I recently posted a tip on how to use flax as a substitute for egg. Another helpful tip for the Sacramento heat: You can substitute butter (up to a half) with shortening to try and keep the buttercream from melting in the summer.

What’s the most amazing cake you’ve seen baked for a child so far?

Oh my gosh, some of them are just outstanding! Fabulous. I mean, you could purchase them. But all skill levels are welcome. Some of them are just amazing. One I just saw recently, the baker had an M&M’s bag floating in the air with M&M’s trailing down onto the cake. Amazing. Our bakers here in Sacramento are doing a fabulous job baking cakes.

What’s one memorable experience you’ve had with Cake4Kids so far?

Yesterday, I met with one of our partnering agencies, Opening Doors. They service immigrants, refugees and victims of human-trafficking. Unfortunately, because of the child’s privacy, we do not deliver to the child. We only deliver to the agency. So I don’t get to see the smiles on the children’s faces. … But I met with two case workers, and they deliver the cakes, and they just expressed over and over again how happy the children are to receive their happy birthday cake and just how special it is. … It’s why we’re doing this. Even though we don’t see the child’s smiles, they do. We give knowing that it will be appreciated. We don’t necessarily need the thanks or the smiles. We know at least we’re doing something to help that child feel special and loved.