For many years, Atholton High School and the Harriet Tubman Head Start Center stood a scant half-block from each other - 129 steps, according to Atholton teacher Mary Brzezinski - but neither Columbia institution had anything to do with the other.
That changed in 2004, when Brzezinski, head of Atholton's work-study program, decided to bring some of the preschoolers over to Atholton.
"Our kids had decorated the hallway" with movie themes, Brzezinski recalled, "and I thought the little ones ought to see it."
The experience went so well that by October 2004, Brzezinski was spearheading a program called Wednesdays at Atholton. Children from the Head Start Center would arrive at the high school at 1:50 p.m. every Wednesday and do things with Atholton students.
As many as 600 high school students have been involved, Brzeninski said, doing everything from reading with the youngsters to teaching them cheerleading.
"We actually have 17 active organizations that have been doing remarkable things with the kids," Brzeninski said.
On Thursday, a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the opening of a library at the Tubman Center that was created by Atholton students. High-schoolers will work at the library and continue to add books.
Travis Payne, 16, a junior at Atholton, spearheaded the library for a service project as part of his Gifted and Talented mentorship program.
He applied for and received a $500 grant from the National Education Association and also rallied dozens of students from myriad student organizations. The grant was one of 50 received from about 350 applicants.
Payne, dressed in a neat blue suit, was articulate and relaxed as he stood at the front of the crowded room and thanked everyone for attending the library's ribbon-cutting.
"We have cake," the teenager said at the end of the brief ceremony. "We thank you for coming, and we are ecstatic about what the future holds for us."
More plans are in the works to expand the relationship between the high school and the Head Start center - which has about 65 children from families at or below the poverty line. The plans include a donate-a-book fundraiser, a family literacy night scheduled for June and a "Book Buddy" program that will pair National Honor Society students with Head Start children for one lunch period of reading each week.
Payne is vice president of the Future Educators of America, another school organization that has been heavily involved in the project. He said he wants to be an elementary school teacher and administrator.
He said he has been working on the project since mid-December and plans to continue to serve as a mentor to the Head Start children even though the library is finished.
For the ribbon-cutting ceremony, rows of folding chairs had been placed in the library, and the small room was crowded with high school students, teachers, parents and other adults involved in the project.
The highlight occurred when row after row of tiny preschoolers walked into the room, each carrying a plastic bag with a book they had checked out of the new library. An "aawww" went up from the crowd as they filed in.
One of the Head Start children walked up to Payne and handed him a box containing a $25 gift certificate to Borders, then said: "Mr. Travis, this is a little gift from Head Start. Thank you very much." The room erupted in applause.
Natalie Kelly, the Gifted and Talented Program mentor teacher who worked with Payne on the project, had nothing but praise for him.
"He is the type of person who, if you give him the smallest idea, he can take it and make it grow," she said. "He has worked tirelessly. He has done just a phenomenal job."
The school's Spanish National Honor Society had donated the first 86 books to the library and also decorated the room for the opening ceremony.
"It's a very special opportunity to share the gift of reading," said Candee Brodsky, instructional leader for Spanish at the high school and head of the school's chapter of the Spanish National Honor Society.
Before the Atholton students converted the Head Start center room to a library, it was little more than a storage space.
"It was a mess, kind of," said Meredith Baker, 16, a junior and the secretary of the Future Educators of America. "It had a jungle gym in the middle of it. We've done a lot of work on it."
Brzezinsky seemed thrilled to see the culmination of so much work. "There is almost zero cost to this, but there are amazing benefits," she said.