Ocean View resident Luca Donoto recently turned 7. But Donato — a fan of Star Wars, Godzilla and soccer — decided to forgo receiving birthday presents at his party, and instead have his guests donate food for a local food pantry.
“I wanted to do it for my birthday. I also wanted to do it for the kids who don’t have food and they need some food to eat,” said Donato.
This was the second year Donato chose to collect donations rather than receive birthday gifts. Last year, he collected items for Cats Around Town, a local organization from which the family’s two cats were adopted. Birthday party guests brought donated cat food, cat litter and other kitty-related goodies that were then delivered to the organization.
“I just wanted to do something new,” said Donato of choosing to donate to a local food pantry. “Like, a cat is an animal and a person is something else.”
Donato collected a large box of nonperishable items, including pasta, peanut butter and applesauce and donated it to his church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
“We picked the food bank because he told me he wanted to provide food for kids over the summer,” said Luca’s mom, Ann-Margaret Donato. “I looked around, and the Food Bank was the first thing I was drawn to. So we left everything with St. Peter’s and they’re going to donate it all out for us.
“That’s what Saint Peter’s does — they actually go out into the community in Rehoboth and do lunches for the kids. We didn’t know that ahead of time, so it was a really good match when we found that out. This year I loved how it worked out with our church.”
Ann-Margaret Donato said it was exciting to go to the church to drop off Luca’s donations, which took up a whole corner of an office.
“We’ve been there now a couple years, and I love them because they’re very active in the community. They’re really big on giving back.”
When she first broached the subject with Luca before his sixth birthday, Ann-Margaret Donato said she was worried.
“I was worried as a mom at the beginning that, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m taking away that part of his birthday’ — because I grew up with regular birthdays. But each year he gets to pick one gift that he really wants. This year, it was a 3-foot Godzilla. Last year, it was this huge fire truck.”
For the last two years, Luca has received a big gift from his parents and some others from family members.
“We put a big box by the door, and he decorates the sign and collects it all. He’s never batted an eye about it,” said Ann-Margaret Donato. “I thought he was going to give me a hard time last year when I proposed the idea, but he didn’t at all. This year, I asked who he wanted to donate to and he went right with it.”
Family and friends have also been receptive to Luca’s charitable birthday parties.
“I went online and just put it on our invite exactly what it said on the Food Bank, exactly what their needs were,” said Ann-Margaret Donato. “We got about $100 worth of food… Each group brought a bag of groceries. It was really nice. I would say most people brought five to 10 items.”
Ann-Margaret Donato said presents weren’t even missed during the birthday party, with the kids playing in the yard and slacklining, and a special visit from Officer Nick Harrington of the Ocean View Police Department.
“He gave me a ride in his jeep!” said Luca of the department’s new ATV. “We went right down the golf course.”
Luca, who will be starting first grade at Lord Baltimore Elementary School next week, will also be joining the Cub Scouts, where he hopes more volunteer opportunities will be available.
“With the boys, I try to teach them to pay it forward. That’s always been my big thing,” said Ann-Margaret Donato.
She said the family tries to pay it forward in a variety of ways, from visiting the residents at Brandywine Assisted Living for game night to something as simple as paying for the person behind them at a drive-through.
“They get a big kick out of it, and so do I. We’ll pay for it, and then we’ll zoom off. I love that… We pay forward a lot of things. So I’m hoping that message will continue with them. Just to be compassionate to others, and to put others first…
“We used to work for Freeman when we moved down here, before we had kids, and they were really big on paying it forward. Josh’s [Freeman’s] big thing was pay it forward. That statement, when he passed — I wanted to make sure that message continued on.”
In 2013, Ann-Margaret Donato shaved her head to raise money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, in support of her cousin’s son, who was diagnosed with cancer.
“They understood that whole process, why mom was doing that,” she explained.
Donato said she and her husband, John, are very proud of Luca and his generous spirit.
“I’m really proud of him. We brought it up as an idea last year. It just felt like the right thing to do. We live in a small space. We don’t need any more toys — he already has enough,” she said, adding of her youngest son, Paolo, “I told the little one, ‘I’ll give you one more year,’ so at age 6, he’ll start doing the same thing.”
The birthday donations have been called Gifts to Give by the family, and Ann-Margaret Donato said it would be amazing to get more kids to join the movement.
“You could see how many kids could do it and make it a joint effort. It could be really amazing,” she said. “I think it’s nice for him to know that he can do that.”
As for donating to those in need, Luca said it has been a rewarding experience — and one that he plans to continue.
“It felt good to me to do it. Next year, I’ll do it for dogs,” he said. “I just think it’s nice to do things for other people.”