Ellicott Mills Middle School

Students at Ellicott Mills Middle School eagerly participate in a budgeting lesson with Cathy Smith, a representative from the Grassroots Crisis Center. (Photo by Sara Toth / September 17, 2012)

At Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City, students are learning that when it comes to combating poverty, every little bit helps. Even something as small as pocket change can make a difference.

That's the idea behind Change Matters, a student community service and philanthropic endeavor. Ellicott Mills is one of nine county middle schools, and 20 schools in all, participating in the project to benefit Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the county's only 24-hour crisis center and homeless shelter.

"In an affluent community like this, let's hope we can teach children to be stewards of compassion," said Cathy Smith, a Grassroots representative. "We look to the kids to make the future a little bit better."

On Friday, Sept. 14 in Sharon Marbury's sixth-grade class, Smith took students through the day-to-day life of a low-income family struggling to make ends meet. With a student keeping track of the tight budget on the chalkboard, Smith asked the students if the family should consider getting health insurance — a non-essential expense — even though money was scarce.


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The resounding answer from the class was "yes," and 11-year-old Dario James-Sanchez explained why: "It might even save you more money than what you'd spend," Dario said.

The insurance actually wound up benefiting the class's budget; shortly after purchasing insurance, the mother fell ill and had to be hospitalized.

After class, Dario explained that his own mother has taught him to watch the news. "I hear about the economy, and I can understand a little bit about what they're talking about," he said. "As long as you can understand, you can help. You can do fundraisers and donate money."

Elsewhere in Ellicott Mills, other classes were learning about the efforts of Grassroots, preparing for a Walk-A-Thon on Sept. 28 (last year's campaign raised more than $7,700; throughout the county, Change Matters raised nearly $27,000) and discussing stereotypes surrounding poverty and homelessness.

"What if you knew what the story was?" Smith said. "Imagine that (homeless) person is an Iraqi war veteran who served three tours of duty, who has a Purple Heart because he saved 10 of his comrades in battle but was wounded, and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder, and couldn't get a job because he couldn't cope. Maybe things kept spiraling downwards, and that's why he's in the street. Does that change your opinion of that person? ...

"We're trying to get kids to think beyond the stereotypes. We want kids to realize that no one chooses to be homeless."

Efforts to coordinate the service learning day at the school were coordinated by teachers Brice Dawson, Matt Gaieski and Brian Donoughe, Smith said. This is the third year the school has participated in Change Matters.

"I thought that the notion of supporting a community need would be something our students would embrace," said Ellicott Mills Principal Michael Goins. "Watching kids respond over the last couple of years has been inspiration for us to build on it, so it becomes more meaningful."

For students to respond so positively to lessons about poverty, and to be so eager to help, means that "there's hope for this world," Goins said.

"They're young people that have a very direct connection to that very powerful capacity for compassion," he said. "When you understand and live with compassion, you count your blessings and you extend yourself in some way."