What better way to celebrate a birthday than give the gift of giving

Becky Nichols' daughter, Libbie, would have turned 13 this month , and it will be the eighth birthday that her mother will mark the day by bringing cookies to her grave. Pink balloon sugar cookies or ones with "I love you" depicted in sign language that will be devoured by ants rather than by the birthday girl.

Libbie was born with leukemia, and she spent all of her five years fighting it. "She was strong and feisty and so mature," says Nichols, who owns Bountiful Bakery and Cafe in West Lake Hills and Bee Cave. "She knew she was here for a specific reason. No one was going to get in her way."

During Libbie's hospital stays, nurses, social workers and volunteers would drop off little toys and stuffed animals to brighten her day. In turn, Libbie would bestow those gifts to people who came to visit her. "She understood that the gift was in the giving."

Soon after Libbie died - on Good Friday in 2004, just shy of her kindergarten graduation - her mother channeled her grief into creating a restaurant in her honor, named for the endless spirit of giving that embodied her daughter.

Ever since the first location of Bountiful Bakery and Cafe opened in 2006, Nichols has been giving back to the children's hospitals that helped extend her daughter's life four years beyond what doctors first predicted.

But instead of money, Nichols gives what she's good at: macaroni and cheese, chicken and dumplings, birthday cakes and, around the holidays, turkey dinners for the families.

She can't cure what got them there in the first place, but she can bring a little something comforting and familiar. "Often they will eat that even if they can't eat anything else."

Last year, she and her staff donated about $20,000 worth of food to Children's Blood and Cancer Center, Dell's Children Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House, and this year, in an effort to raise money so she can give even more, she's throwing a big party in honor of her daughter's birthday . (See box for more information.)

Mac and cheese might not seem like much, but it's the small gestures that have the biggest effect. "You don't have to do something huge to really change somebody."

I found out about Nichols' efforts while considering my own birthday and the idea that it can be a good time to think about what you can give instead of what you get - sort of a way to pass along all the goodness that comes on your big day.

So last month, I threw a Pay It Forward birthday dinner party for myself in which I asked guests not to bring me any gifts or invite me to dinner in reciprocity but, rather, pass along the gesture to someone else in whatever capacity they could.

In some countries like Spain, the person celebrating the birthday buys dinner for his or her friends, but in my case, I smoked 15 pounds of marinated chicken and served tacos with agua fresca at a party at Open Room Austin, a permanent piece of outdoor art near the Pfluger pedestrian bridge that looks like an "Alice and Wonderland" table surrounded by tall all-white streetlights. (My friend Mando Rayo paid it forward upfront by letting me borrow his big propane disc to reheat the meat and veggies.)

Inspired by a friend who has been hosting similar dinners, I didn't try to serve an elaborate meal, just one that people could enjoy in the company of others. Several guests brought desserts - it is a birthday, after all - but no gifts, just as I'd requested.

I'm not the only Austinite who has used a birthday this year to raise money or awareness for a food cause. Last month, Kay Marley-Dilworth, the power-tweeter behind @ATXFoodNews, used her birthday as a call to action for Meals on Wheels, and she raised $536 to buy more than 200 meals. Another friend with a birthday this week is asking friends to meet her for breakfast at the farmers' market to support growers who are bearing the brunt of this summer's drought. In May, Megan Myers vowed to donate a dollar for every comment a birthday post on her food blog, Stetted, to the Capitol Area Food Bank.

Marley-Dilworth says she loves that people are finding ways that those of us who have can help others who don't. "This year, I kind of felt that it's not about me any more. Instead of going out and spending a ton of money on myself, I thought, `Let's see what we can do.'"

If you're feeling inspired to pass along the bounty of your birthday to others, you can use online tools like Crowdrise and Give a Tweet to help raise money for a certain cause. The international nonprofit World of Children has set up Give Up Your Birthday (giveupyourbirthday.org) , where people are encouraged to raise money and awareness for children in need instead of asking for gifts.

You also can incorporate the idea of giving back in your party, too. Instead of giving out party favors or getting a tableful of gifts at your kid's birthday party, you could have his or her friends bring canned food instead of toys to the party. You could ask your own friends to meet at the food bank to volunteer together before going out for a celebratory dinner. It doesn't seem like much to celebrate your own birthday by bringing dinner to your neighbors who are going through a rough time or baking cookies for the office, but never underestimate the power of food to turn someone else's day around.

Soon after my birthday dinner, stories of what people were doing started trickling in. Christy Horton, a food blogger friend, gave a fan to Family Eldercare and blogged about the Pay It Forward party to encourage her readers to do the same, and 13-year-old Johnee Wolter took two of her friends out for frozen yogurt. Her mom, Kristina, relished doing little things that ended up coming back to her by the week's end. I've even been hearing from people who couldn't make it to the party who did something nice anyway, like Martha Pincoffs, who donated more than 100 hard-boiled eggs to a place downtown that serves food to homeless people.

Becky Nichols credits the success of her business to a single email telling her family's story that a customer sent out when it first opened. It just kept getting passed on. "Every person who came in for a year after that said they'd read the email."

She'd just keep giving away the comfort food, holiday meals and made-to-order birthday cakes to whomever needed them, but she knows that raising money for the Loving Libbie Memorial Foundation will mean more food and financial help for the families that are going through what she and her husband and son, Buster, did not so long ago.

"All these things are things that have been done to me first," she says. "It's part of me being OK, continuing on."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

 

Pay It Forward Bars

1 box chocolate cake mix

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 egg

3/4 cup of chopped nuts

3/4 cup of dried cranberries

1 cup of chocolate chips

2/3 cup of milk

1 can of dulce de leche (see note)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together cake mix, butter and egg until it comes together in a crumble. Line a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking pan with parchment paper and press mixture into the pan. On top of the mixture, sprinkle nuts, cranberries and chocolate chips.

In a small bowl, whisk together milk and dulche de leche. Pour milk mixture evently over the nuts, berries and chocolate chips.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until set. Cool and then cut into bars.

(Note: Canned dulce de leche is found in the Latin foods section of the grocery store or in the baking aisle, next to sweetened condensed milk.

- Kristina Wolter, GirlGoneGrits.com

Libbie's Birthday Bash

Becky Nichols is organizing a party in honor of her daughter, Libbie, who died in 2004 and would have turned 13 this month. The first Libbie's Birthday Bash will take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 27 at Austin Music Hall, 208 Nueces St., and will feature music from the Biscuit Brothers, ice cream from Amy's Ice Creams, cake and other food from Bountiful Bakery and Cafe, a Velcro wall, obstacle courses inside the music hall and enchanted fairy forest and superhero tents with face painting and kids activities. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $15 for kids.

The money raised from the event will help fund Nichols' effort through the Loving Libbie Memorial Foundation to provide mac and cheese and chicken and dumplings to kids and families at area children's treatment centers, as well as turkey dinners around the holidays, birthday cakes on the kids' birthdays and other support to make it easier on them. To find out more about the event, buy tickets or make a donation, go to macaronirun.org .

- Addie Broyles

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