GLEN BURNIE, Md. – On a cold December day, 13-year-old Amber Coffman is performing her Saturday afternoon ritual of delivering lunches to the homeless in her hometown. As she and her mother, Bobbi, approach the small North County Area Library, about 10 homeless men flock to them with hungry stomachs and grateful smiles.
Amber seems oblivious to the wind blowing around her as she distributes cheese sandwiches, pastries and Kool-Aid. But cold temperatures have never kept her home. She has not missed a Saturday since she began distributing lunches in February 1993, after being inspired by a school research project on Mother Teresa.
“It gives me a good feeling on the inside to know that I’m helping people … and making their day be better,” Amber said.
With the help of about a dozen volunteers, ages 6 to 19, Amber prepares and distributes about 400 lunches to the homeless in downtown Glen Burnie on Saturdays and outside Baltimore City Hall on Sundays. Food is donated by area restaurants.
“She’s there for us when nobody else is,” said Dave Dahl, 35, a homeless man from Glen Burnie. “She takes personal interest.”
Several organizations have commended the eighth grader for her efforts. Last month, she won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse “Good as Gold” award for her deeds and received $10,000, a plaque, 18 red roses, two airline tickets to New York and two tickets to a show at Radio City Music Hall.
Last week, she received an award from the Washington-based Caring Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes selflessness and compassion. Institute spokeswoman Colleen Noland said the judges were struck by how much Amber has accomplished at her young age and the “loving way” in which she has done it.
In addition to directing her Happy Helpers for the Homeless program, Amber has volunteered her time to 31 other organizations, including the Anne Arundel County Fire Prevention Committee and the Salvation Army.
But her main concern is the homeless.
Since the age of 10, she has sacrificed her Feb. 26 birthday to make her homeless friends feel special.
Instead of having a party for herself, she throws one for some of them. She sings happy birthday to guests by name and buys each a present. Last year, each of her guests received a wristwatch, which she purchased with some award money.
“It seems to be part of her nature to be kind,” said Otto Macha, 56, one of her homeless friends from Glen Burnie, who was so moved by her generosity that he danced with her at last year’s party.
“They look forward to it each year and they ask about it to make sure we’re still having it,” Amber said.
“I think that she speaks with her heart,” said Bill Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank. He is hoping to have her speak in the Food Bank’s upcoming public service announcements.
“Plenty of people can articulate the need … but she actually puts leather to the pavement and goes after something and feeds people and organizes,” Ewing said.
Amber had her first experience helping the homeless when was 8. She and her mother volunteered for 13 months at Sarah’s House, an Anne Arundel County homeless shelter, where they helped with chores and cared for children while their parents worked.
At 10, Amber approached her mother and asked if she could start a project of her own.
“I was really happy,” Bobbi said. “I thought it was a wonderful thing that she wanted to do.” But the single parent told her daughter they must first find businesses that could help finance the project. They did, and the Happy Helpers program was born.
In between her service activities, Amber still finds time to go to the mall and watch movies with friends, including “Clueless” and “Congo.” She enjoys reading the “Goosebumps” stories and making jewelry.
Her favorite subjects are math and science, and she is enrolled in advanced-level classes at Old Mill Middle School South in Millersville. She is also active in the school chorus.
Amber said she does not like discussing her volunteer work in school, but many of her classmates know about her efforts.
“Some don’t know why I do it,” Amber said. “Some think it’s kind of dumb, but I still have a lot of positive responses to it.”
For a recent interview on the “Today” show, Amber said a few friends joined her in New York. “I think they were just really excited and happy about it,” she said.
So was she. “I got a taste of what it will be like if I become a broadcast journalist,” she said.
She said she hopes to one day open her own homeless shelter.
In the more recent future, she hopes to see the Happy Helpers program branch out into other states.
During a recent speech at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, she said people were surprised by how young she is. “I think they were kind of amazed that someone so young was doing such a big job, but I don’t think it’s a big job,” she said. “It’s just something that’s needed.” -30-