"Happy birthday! Go vote."
It's the message one Naperville organization wants teens to get when they're eligible to cast ballots, so the League of Women Voters is delivering it through gifts.
League members gathered Wednesday to prepare Birthday Boxes for students in government classes at Metea Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools who are turning 18 in time for this November's general election.
The boxes contain nonpartisan information about registering to vote, searching for reliable information about candidates, voting by mail while in college, forming opinions in a democracy and why voting is important.
Along with the handouts, each box contains pencils, mints and Tootsie Rolls in patriotic wrappers, a business card for the League of Women Voters' VOTE411 website, and a letter from a fellow voter.
"It seems like such a personal way to be reaching out to these kids," said league member Susan Craighead, one of many volunteers who helped write a letter for each of the 216 Birthday Boxes the club is distributing in the program's first round. "It's amazing how inspirational that is."
The club got the idea to encourage new voters from a news story about a similar program in Michigan led by a group called CitizenDetroit. Annette Smith, voter services chairwoman for the League of Women Voters of Naperville, said CitizenDetroit gave her the go-ahead to copy the premise, so her club got to work, presenting its first boxes Sept. 26, on National Voter Registration Day.
Roughly 30 students at Waubonsie Valley in Aurora were the first to receive the voting-themed gifts, and Smith said they did so with enthusiasm.
"Other students see them and they get kind of excited," she said about the boxes, which the club decorates with each teen's name and stickers saying "Happy Birthday!" and "Future Voter."
"It generates a conversation about voting," she said.
The club has distributed about 40 Birthday Boxes at Metea Valley in Aurora, choosing the school's Constitution Day in December as the occasion to hand them out. The rest of the soon-to-be 18-year-olds who took a government class during first semester will receive their boxes Tuesday, nearly two months before the March 20 primary.
Smith said government teachers at the two high schools are signing up students from their second-semester classes, and the league will try to deliver boxes for those teens before the primary, too. The league also is reaching out to teachers at Naperville Central and North high schools to expand the program.
So far, the group has spent about $380 on supplies to build and fill the boxes. But the biggest challenge, Smith said, is finding people to write letters of encouragement. Anyone who wants to write a letter to a newly eligible voter is asked to contact the club at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"It just feels like a really productive way to get young people involved," Craighead said.