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Counter The Happy Helpers: Amber Coffman

"What can one person do?" I hear people ask.  "The problems of society are so vast!" The answer is that one person can do a lot.  Every great movement starts with one person and moves forward because of individuals.  Today, as we confront homelessness in America, it's easy to say, "There's nothing I can do." In fact, a great many people are doing something to help the homeless, in churches and volunteer programs all across the land.  One of these heroes is a fifteen-year-old girl I met in a small town in Maryland.

When Mother Teresa came to Washington early in June 1997 to receive a gold medal from Congress, Speaker Newt Gingrich invited several colleagues to his office to meet her.  Impatiently, we went out to the hallway and waited for her with a group of nuns.  All of us, politicians and nuns alike, stood in reverent silence.  When the elevator door opened, a small, seemingly fragile woman exited by wheelchair, smiling and lifting her hand to her lips in a prayerful act of humility.  Back in Newt's office, Senators and Representatives lined up to greet her; Mother Teresa's love, humility and inner strength filled the room.

For decades, her spiritual energy reached out to countless lives, all around the world.  On a visit to Glen Burnie, Maryland, a few weeks after I met Mother Teresa in Washington, I saw a dramatic example of the impact she had on the lives of others.

I had driven to Glen Burnie to meet fifteen-year-old Amber Coffman.  Two months earlier, at the President's Summit for America's Future, in Philadelphia, I had heard that Amber had done a remarkable job of feeding the homeless and I wanted to see for myself.

Amber's mother, Bobbi Coffman, a gentle woman in her thirties, met me in the parking lot in front of her small, drab apartment complex.  It was clear that working families lived here, many of whom were probably struggling financially.  Bobbi took me to meet Amber and her volunteers.  Inside the apartment, almost filling the small living room, was a table surrounded by kids making bologna and cheese sandwiches.  I knew immediately which one was Amber.  A slender, pretty girl with long, dark hair, she had the quiet aura of a born leader.

Working with her around the table were boys and girls, white and black, ranging from tiny six-year-olds to strapping sixteen-year-olds.  They wore sneakers, T-shirts, jeans and cutoffs like any group of American kids, but they were different.  On a Saturday morning when they might have been sleeping or hanging out at the mall or playing soccer, they had gathered to help others.  Amber calls her program Happy Helpers for the Homeless, and these young people, and others like them, have met in the Coffman living room every Saturday morning since February 1993 to serve the homeless people of Glen Burnie and Baltimore.

Bobbi and Amber's apartment is a part-time kitchen for serving hungry homeless people.  The worn couch in the living room was stacked with hundreds of buns for the sandwiches.  The cramped kitchen was filled with cartons of juice.  Big yellow mustard jars were scattered around the dining room.  The young volunteers filled the rest of the apartment with their energy and laughter as they slapped together sandwiches with assembly-line efficiency.  Their innocence and generosity, as they carried out this labor of kindness and love, brought tears to my eyes.  Too often, growing up hardens our hearts and blocks our "childlike" instincts to help others.

That afternoon, Amber and her mother told me how the Happy Helpers came to be.  Mother and daughter are very close.  Amber's father deserted Bobbi before Amber was born.  Bobbi served in the army for fifteen years, as a teacher, rising to the rank of staff sergeant.  But when the army wanted to send her to a hardship post, where she didn't think eight-year-old Amber would be happy, she resigned and moved to Glen Burnie.  In the army, she hadn't had time for volunteer work, but in her new life she wanted to work "with the poorest of the poor."

Bobbi wanted to volunteer at Sarah's House, a homeless shelter located on the Fort Meade army base, but she would only volunteer if her daughter would go with her.

"I was hesitant," Amber recalls.  "I didn't know what to expect.  But once we got there I really liked it."

Amber looked after homeless children while their parents took training courses.  Both the children and their parents told Amber their stories.  "They broke her heart," Bobbi recalls.  "Driving home, she would tell me about their lives and we would both cry."

A year later, Amber read four books on Mother Teresa for a book report.  "I was inspired," she recalls.  "I wanted to start my own programs, to provide meals to people who aren't in shelters.  Mother Teresa had dedicated her life to others--I wanted to be like her."

"I told her it was a wonderful idea," Bobbi recalls.  "But I told her we'd have to wait until I got another job and saved enough money for us to get started.  That took a year.  We started the program in February 1993."

Amber had just turned eleven.

It's not unusual for a girl that age to take someone like Mother Teresa for her hero.  In fact, Bobbi recalled that, when Amber was only four, her preschool teacher sent home a report that said, "Amber is a leader, and everyone else wants to follow." What is unusual is for someone so young to have the determination, the imagination and the organizational skills to start a program that would reach out to thousands of people in need.

"I knew I couldn't put a roof over their heads," Amber says.  "But I wanted to do what I could.  I was sure other kids would volunteer if they had a chance.  I knew from the first that I wanted to provide meals.  And I knew that giving them food wasn't as important as giving them love."

Over the years, Amber had attracted a total of six hundred volunteers.  When I met her in 1997, she had about forty "active" volunteers, and each Saturday morning about ten of them would come to the apartment and make six hundred sandwiches.  That translates into six hundred slices of cheese, six hundred hamburger buns, and forty-two pounds of bologna, plus the soft drinks, pastries and hot chocolate they serve in the winter.  (Sometimes they make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but that takes longer.) On Saturday afternoon they distribute sandwiches to the handful of homeless people in Glen Burnie, and on Sunday they drive to Baltimore and give the rest of the sandwiches, along with juice, doughnuts, clothes and blankets, and toiletries such as soap and toothpaste, to several hundred homeless people who line up outside City Hall.

Amber estimates that Happy Helpers for the Homeless has fed more than 25,000 people since 1993, and her work has attracted national attention.  When she appeared on the CBS Morning News, people across the country wrote to say they wanted to start Happy Helpers programs in their cities, and several are now under way.  Thus, in a mysterious and wonderful way, the spark of goodness has passed from Mother Teresa to Amber, and from her to others all across the land.

Bobbi and Amber's motivation is in large part religious.  Scriptural quotations are posted on their refrigerator door.  Every Sunday, before they drive to Baltimore to feed the poor, they attend early services at the Heritage Church of God.  Today Bobbi has two jobs, during the day as a licensed child care provider and as an employee at the Greenway Bowling Center at night.  Bobbi gives all the credit for the Happy Helpers to Amber--"It's not me, it's her," she insists--but it is clear that she is the rock that enabled her remarkable daughter to flourish.

The volunteers are remarkable too.  When I asked them why they were there, working for others when they could be out having fun, they made it clear that this was fun.

"It helps people--it makes me feel good," said Jeff Mentzer, a sixteen-year-old from Severna Park, Maryland.

Jesse Pittman, who's seven, said, "I jumped up and down when I heard about Amber's program.  My mom said it was a little far away but she'd take me." Her mother, Karen Pittman, explained that they are Quakers and live on a farm near Davidsonville, a half hour's drive away.  When Jesse was five, she said, she began noticing homeless people when they went to town.  "She just saw them as people," Karen says of her daughter.  "She asked why they were on the street.  I told her they didn't have homes and we started making sandwiches for them whenever we were going to town.  She would give them a sandwich and talk with them and they were so happy to have a child talk to them.  Then we heard about Amber's program and she knew she had to participate."

Most of the kids said they'd read about the Happy Helpers in the newspaper and called Amber to volunteer.  Who says that kids don't read?

Amber not only directs the weekend sandwich making and distribution, but during the week seeks out businesses and restaurants and grocery stores that will donate food and other necessities to the homeless.  Increasingly she is a sought-after public speaker.  She doesn't ask for a fee, but when people offer money, it goes to buy more cheese and bologna.

When Amber started the Happy Helpers, she made a list of the things she needed.  First of all she needed sources of food.  "I drove her to the stores," her mother recalls, "but I always waited in the car while she went in to ask for donations.  I knew a child would reach them.  She got a lot of yeses." Their apartment building is next door to a 7-Eleven, which lets them store their sandwiches overnight in its freezer.

One of their biggest donors is Glenn Kikuchi, who owns a McDonald's in nearby Millersville, Maryland.  When Amber went to see him a few years ago, he quizzed her for an hour before he agreed to support her.  Bobbi estimates that in 1996 he donated 48,000 slices of cheese and 24,000 hamburger rolls.

The National Center for Pastoral Leadership has raised several thousand dollars that is used to buy food and other necessities.  Another family donates twelve pounds of cheese each week.  When Amber was at the Philadelphia conference on volunteerism, officials from B.J.'s Wholesale Club sought her out and asked how they could help.  Now they send several hundred doughnuts and sweet rolls each week.

At the outset, Amber and her mother talked to homeless people and found that they were most in need of food on weekends, so they decided to distribute sandwiches in Glen Burnie on Saturdays, then in Baltimore, where the need is much greater, on Sundays.  Bobbi says they haven't missed a weekend in more than four years.  To them, showing up with the sandwiches is a moral imperative--they know the people will be there, counting on them, and they won't let them down.

When they first started the Happy Helpers, they distributed the sandwiches in downtown Glen Burnie, until the homeless people asked them to come closer to the woods where many of them live.  So they began meeting outside a public library where many of them spend part of their time.  They did that for several years until one day a security guard told them they were loitering and they couldn't pass out sandwiches there anymore.  Amber doesn't know why the library changed its policy.  Fortunately, it didn't matter, because Bobbi and Amber just moved their operation next door to the Harundale Presbyterian Church.

The Saturday I was there, a father and son, Joe Knight Sr.  and Jr., came by for sandwiches and fruit juice, as they do most Saturdays.  Both were down on their luck.  The father said he receives Social Security and is living in a shelter while he waits to get into public housing.  His son, a dark-haired man with a ponytail, said he had worked for many years as a furniture mover but now has a bad back and has been waiting for six months for his Social Security benefits to begin.  Both men spoke affectionately of Amber and her mother: "They do a wonderful job," the father said.  "We really look forward to seeing them every Saturday."

Amber insists that homeless people "are just like everybody else, just like you and me.  A lot of them work.  Some just have lost their jobs or had bad luck.  We try to help them with their self-esteem." Her mother adds that some of the people they work with have drug or alcohol problems.  Amber recalls one man who said that he would have starved without her help, but later found a job and got his life back together.

In addition to the weekend sandwich distribution, Amber holds a series of special events each year.  On her birthday, instead of having a party for herself she gives a party for the homeless.  Last Easter she and her volunteers gave out three hundred Easter baskets.  Last Christmas she persuaded schools, churches and businesses to donate 1300 gifts for the homeless, which she and her friends wrapped and distributed.  In October, on National Make a Difference Day, the Happy Helpers bring busloads of Baltimore's homeless to spend a day with Glen Burnie's homeless.  The volunteers serve breakfast and lunch, wash the homeless people's clothes, have a barber to cut hair and a dentist who pulls teeth on the spot.  Whenever they can, they give the homeless sneakers, wristwatches and sleeping bags.

"We have the largest family in the world," Amber says.  She has plans to start a mentoring program, in which older teenagers and adults will work with homeless and at-risk children, with an emphasis on "homework and love."

Amber has begun to think about her future.  When we met, she was a sophomore at Severn College Preparatory School.  Although her grades are only average--she doesn't always have time to focus on her homework--I suspect that any college in America would love to have her a few years from now.  After college, she has two goals.

The first is to create her own, family-oriented homeless shelter, where she and her mother would live with about ten people at a time.  The other dream is to be a broadcast journalist.

Amber Coffman, as her preschool teacher realized, has a gift for leadership--leadership and love.  To meet Amber and her friends is to have one's faith in America's youth restored.  Too often, we only hear about the kids who go wrong.  When good kids do good works it's just not news.  But these young people--and there are tens of thousands like them, all over America--have the idealism and dedication to make a difference in a world that often their elders have made a mess of.  They are without guile or cynicism.  Amber and her friends haven't just shaken their heads and said how terrible social problems are--they have acted.  They have done everything they can to help those in need.  Just as Mother Teresa inspired Amber, Amber and her mother and her friends should be an inspiration to us all.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Voluntarism United States Case studies, Helping behavior United States Case studies