Glen Burnie woman named to president's civic service council

Coffman, 21, made her mark as youngster in helping the homeless

April 03, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

At 21 years old, Amber Coff- man still hasn't gotten her driver's license. But the Glen Burnie native seems to have done just about everything else.

By age 10, she had founded an organization to feed the homeless. By age 15, she had won the Miss Teen USA Maryland title. She has met two presidents, appeared on several national talk shows, and been featured in eight books and several magazines. She even has a crayon named after her.

Last week, the Pepperdine University junior added a new accolade to her resume: presidential appointee. President Bush named her to the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

Along with fellow council members Cal Ripken, former Sen. Bob Dole and journalist Cokie Roberts, Coffman will advise the executive branch on attracting young people to public service.

"Amber Coffman has demonstrated a clear commitment to serving others," White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee said yesterday. "Her civic participation has made her a positive force in her community, even at her young age."

"If this had happened to me in high school," Coffman said, "I don't know that I would have been as cool about it."

As her family tailor took in two dresses she had bought at a discount store to wear as Maryland's Cherry Blossom Princess this week in Washington, she called the recent honors "really cool."

That breezy exterior belies the tough times she endured as the only child of a single mother who took a second job at a bowling alley to make ends meet. And her assertions that she's lucky, that everything just "fell into place" give short shrift to her tireless work for those less fortunate.

Coffman's decade of public service began with a book report and a sandwich.

When she was 8, her mother took her to volunteer at a shelter for the homeless. The women at the shelter would talk about how there was not enough room at the shelter and the number of people living on the streets.

"After a while, I dreamed of reaching out to people outside the shelter," Coffman said.

Inspired by an elementary school book report on Mother Teresa, Coffman founded Happy Helpers for the Homeless in 1993. The group's first meeting attracted seven volunteers, who made 50 lunches from donated bread and peanut butter in the Coffmans' tiny two-bedroom apartment.

They drove to a popular gathering spot for homeless people in Glen Burnie, and the sandwiches disappeared quickly. The next week, they made 100.

Now, Happy Helpers has 20 volunteers making 600 sandwiches weekly, still in the Coffmans' apartment.

The organization relies on donations. A nearby 7-Eleven store lends refrigerator space, the Anne Arundel County Food Bank donates much of the staples, and local bakeries provide the bread.

Coffman considers the homeless men and women part of a family she grew up visiting every week, albeit under the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore instead of in a cozy living room.

"They've seen me grow up," she said. "I think, more than anything, they've been appreciative toward us."

It hasn't always been tranquil. Once, a woman chased her husband with a knife while Happy Helpers passed out food. And every once in awhile, an ornery client jumps the sandwich line.

There have been personal difficulties. Coffman left Severn School, a highly regarded private academy, one year before graduation because her philanthropy was cutting into her studies. She finished at Tree of Life Christian Academy.

Severn's upper school principal, Gerard Connolly, who credited Coffman with motivating the largely affluent student body to hold food drives, said he encouraged Coffman to cut back on her speaking engagements or transfer to a more flexible school.

"She was very sought after by all these groups," he said. "She really became sort of a walking conglomerate, if you will, because so many people wanted to talk to her and see her."

Angie Halamandaris, executive director of the Heart of America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that encourages voluntarism, recalled a presentation by Coffman before a rowdy crowd in Washington. By the end of her talk, the students were asking for her autograph.

"She's literally reached thousands and thousands of young people," Halamandaris said. "Her values are set, she knows her purpose and she sticks to it."

For now, Coffman's purpose is to be a college student. She takes spinning classes at the gym with the other physical education majors, giggles with her girlfriends when she runs into Jennifer Love Hewitt at Banana Republic and occasionally yearns for Gucci bags and Prada shoes like those of her wealthy classmates.

At the Malibu, Calif., college, she tries to leave her Happy Helpers persona back home in Glen Burnie, with her Easter baskets for the homeless, her beauty pageant sashes and a prized letter from Mother Teresa. But she doesn't always succeed.

College friends often ask why a physical education major is invited to speak at official functions.

Recently, a student she was dating typed her name into a computer search and learned that his new girlfriend founded an organization when she was 10 and that a Crayola crayon - "true blue" - was named for her in 1997. She never told him, she said, because she couldn't find a way to say it humbly - and because sometimes she likes being just another college student.

"At home, everyone knows me as the sandwich girl," Coffman said. "I always have Happy Helpers to come home to."

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