Giving a lot of help, getting a lot of joy Winner: Amber Coffman expects that her new title will give her more opportunities to inspire others.

Catching Up With ...

December 28, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

It's a good thing 1997 is almost over. Amber Coffman's scrapbook can't take much more.

Where to begin? How about the last weekend in November, at a Baltimore hotel, when the 15-year-old Glen Burnie girl was crowned Miss Maryland Teen USA?

"Oh, I was ecstatic," she says. "I cried for about five minutes."

But that wasn't the best thing that happened to Amber this year. Don't get her wrong -- winning the pageant title was fantastic, a great honor, and the Severn School sophomore looks forward to representing the state in the Miss Teen USA pageant next year.

That will give her another opportunity to talk about her favorite cause -- helping the homeless.

When she was 10, Amber wrote a school book report on Mother Teresa. She was so inspired that she started her own charity, Happy Helpers for the Homeless.

Every weekend, Amber and friends -- as many as 30 -- deliver free food, toiletries, clothes, blankets and resource materials to homeless people in Baltimore and Glen Burnie. About 300 people appeared at City Hall in Baltimore on a recent Sunday afternoon to receive Christmas gifts.

"I think it's my mission in life," she says.

So winning the teen pageant means more than the rhinestone tiara, sash, $500 college scholarship and $1,000 shopping spree in New York. It means she will have more opportunities to promote helping others.

"I think people are drawn to the person with the crown and a sash," she says. "Little kids look up to you. I think it's going to be easier to get my message across, because I'll have a lot of speaking engagements."

Amber was selected over 65 other Maryland girls 14 to 16 years old. They were judged in three categories: evening gown, swimsuit and interview. The final five candidates were asked a question: If you could perform one activity more, what would it be?

"I'd like to go out and speak more as a motivator and inspire others and have a positive impact on people," she says.

The pageant was the biggest she had ever participated in. She now moves to the national pageant, which will be televised by CBS in August.

But winning the state pageant wasn't the best thing that happened to Amber last year.

Perhaps it was shaking President Clinton's hand. Amber did that, too, in April, when Clinton awarded her a President's Service Medal at his summit on volunteerism in Philadelphia.

"He gave me a hug right on stage!" Amber recalls, still amazed. "It was great."

Afterward, the president and his wife asked to speak with Amber and her mother, Bobbi.

"Mrs. Clinton said Amber's smile is a sunbeam," Bobbi Coffman says.

But as great as that was, that wasn't the best thing that happened to Amber Coffman in 1997.

Here's a possibility for the top prize: In October, Amber had a crayon named for her.

She was named the "Ultimate Crayola True Blue Hero" in a nationwide contest sponsored by Binney & Smith, the maker of Crayola crayons.

Amber used the "True Blue Hero" award to tell others about the joys of volunteering. She started when she was 8; her mother took her to a homeless shelter.

"I was hooked," she says.

She eventually wants to have her own homeless shelter. A cozy place, she says, where 10 people could sit down for dinner in a safe environment.

"I have to help them," she says of her work. "They obviously aren't getting it from someone else. I'll try to be there if I can and do what I can for them."

Shouldn't they help themselves?

"I think it's really hard once you've become homeless and fallen into that cycle to go back and get a job. It's not as easy as it sounds."

There are six Happy Helpers chapters in Maryland and others throughout the country. Amber says she has fielded questions from youths in Canada and Guam about starting chapters. This summer, she was the keynote speaker at a conference on volunteerism in Idaho.

This is what she tells her audiences: "I think helping is required. I think you should do it out of the goodness of your heart. Because you can."

But speaking in Idaho was not the best thing that happened to Amber in 1997. Nor was having the crayon named after her.

There were so many other highlights. In May, she was one of five national winners in the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. In October, she received the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge.

She appeared on the Montel Williams show. She was featured in six books, 20 magazine articles and dozens of newspaper stories. She received resolutions praising her from the governor, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Every year, something better happens," Amber says. "It's crazy. It's like I'm living in this fairy tale world. Nothing goes wrong."

She lives with her mother in a small apartment in Glen Burnie. All night, people appear, dropping off bags of clothing, or call, asking how they can help.

If you want to know the best thing that happened to Amber Coffman in 1997, you should have been with her this summer on one of her trips to distribute sandwiches and other food items.

A homeless man approached her. "He told us this was the last time he was coming down because he now had a job and a place to live," she says. "He said he never would have made it without us. He said he would have starved to death without our food."

Now you know. That was the best thing that happened to Amber Coffman last year.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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