About three years ago, Gabriella McLean was volunteering at the Night of Peace Family Shelter in Windsor Mill when she saw a little girl wearing the red plaid dress she used to own.
The Catonsville High School student, then a freshman, had worn that dress for her first day of middle school, before donating it to the shelter. McLean complimented the girl and befriended her.
Later, McLean got up to leave and the little girl started to cry. McLean said she had to go home.
“She said, ‘I don’t have a home, I want to go with you,’” McLean remembered.
McLean, now 17, said after that incident she and her family worked with the little girl’s family of six to help place them in an apartment.
“That’s something that really changed me,” McLean said. “That’s why I do it.”
“It” — the shelters McLean volunteers at, the Facebook campaigns she organizes to gather donations and the discussions she has with her friends at Catonsville High about homelessness in their own backyard — earned McLean the county’s “Young Woman of the Year” award.
“The annual Woman of the Year awards are given to female Baltimore County residents who have enhanced the lives of others and made significant contributions to their community, workplace, or school to further the interests of women and children,” the county said in a press release. McLean is one of three to win the award this year.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz will present the awards March 1 in Towson.
“I was very surprised,” McLean said of learning she had won the award. “But it’s definitely an honor.”
McLean’s guidance counselor at Catonsville High, Kimberly Carrell, along with Assistant Principal Michelle Landen, nominated McLean for the award.
“She is probably one of the best students I’ve ever encountered … in my 13 years in the county,” Carrell said.
McLean said she has struggled through, and overcome, some health issues, but refused to “let it define” her.
“She’s gone through a lot,” Landen said. In a letter of recommendation for McLean’s college applications, Landen wrote that despite her struggles, “Gabbi has demonstrated an enormous amount of grit.”
“Any given day, when I ask how she is doing, she turns the question to me by asking how I am doing — not worrying about herself, but making sure others are doing OK,” Landen said.
“We nominated her because of the giving person she is, the compassionate person she is, her dedication and leadership in the community, and her perseverance over every hardship,” Carrell said. “She is just always willing to help others, and seeing the good in everybody.”
Angie McLean, Gabriella McLean’s mother, said she was glad to see her daughter receive recognition for all her hard work.
“She puts herself out there and never complains or brags about it,” McLean said of her daughter. “She never seeks out the attention.”
Gabriella McLean said she, her parents and her younger sister, Maddy, had been volunteering with local organizations, including the Westside Men’s Shelter and the Children’s Home, since they moved to Catonsville more than a decade ago.
“It’s something I’ve kind of fallen in love with,” she said of volunteering. “It doesn’t feel like work.”
One aspect of McLean’s volunteer work that surprised her, she said, is how many children she meets at the shelters who go to Catonsville High School with her.
“What I’ve learned is that in our community there is a need,” she said. “It’s something I think needs to get talked about a little bit more.”
One way McLean said she gets others involved is organizing “Love Flash Mobs” on Facebook — most recently, the call to action on social media drew donations of 100 gift bags for Valentine’s Day, filled with handwritten notes, sweet treats and gift cards. She said she and her family will bring them to the Children’s Home and the Westside Men’s Shelter.
“What we’ve found is that people really do want to help,” she said. The “Love Flash Mobs” are a simple way for people to get involved, she said.
“I’ve learned that it really doesn’t take much,” McLean said. “It can be as simple as having them come to the pool, or playing a game.”
“It helps to know that I’m making a small difference,” she said.
McLean, a senior, plans to go into medicine and will enter college on a pre-med track. She said she has been accepted to three colleges and is waiting to hear back from three others before she makes a decision.
Landen and Carrell, at Catonsville High School, said they will miss McLean when she graduates — but, Carrell said, “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of her.”
“She’s going places,” Landen said. “As Dr. Seuss would say, ‘The Places You’ll Go?’ That’s Gabbi.”