In one of the wealthiest counties in the country, students are being confronted with a message: Poverty exists in every community, and students can make a difference.
Around Ellicott Mills Middle School recently, the signs were hard to miss as the campus held a walkathon to benefit the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.
"No one chooses to be homeless," one sign read on the route around the school. "A homeless shelter is NOT a home."
The Ellicott Mills walkathon is one of the first activities being held in the student-led philanthropy project "Change Matters." The effort raises money for Grassroots, the Howard County's only general homeless shelter. At least nine high schools, 11 middle schools and three elementary schools in Howard County plan to participate this year.
Systemwide, Change Matters raised $27,000 last year. Of that, more than $7,700 came from Ellicott Mills, which is located in Ellicott City. The walkathon is the big fundraiser for the school, and students are asked to find people to pledge support for each one-mile lap they complete. A tally for this year is not yet complete.
"They're walking with that awareness that there is this situation in this community, and they are required to confront that," said Ellicott Mills Principal Mike Goins. "It can create an uncomfortable feeling, it can create a feeling of fear or sadness or compassion, and those are all very important things for people to learn to walk with."
Before the walk, the school dedicated a day to learning about Grassroots, homelessness and poverty. In one lesson, the students talked about how homelessness could happen. They discussed a scenario in which a parent in a family loses a job, and they talked about the expenses that would need to be covered.
Goins said the preparation made the issue more real for them and helped them understand that some of their fellow students could be homeless, without anyone realizing it.
That was exactly what Shannon Cucchiaro, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, took away from the lessons. She walked four laps before breaking for lunch and planned to walk more afterward with the rest of her grade.
"I learned there could be kids in our school who are homeless and too embarrassed to tell," Shannon said. "It could actually help some of the students, and it's also helping lots of families."
Seventh-grader Andrew Samuels, also 12, said during the walk that he was surprised to learn how shelters like Grassroots worked. He found out that if someone breaks the curfew rule, the person is asked to leave.
"You don't know what it's like until you've actually experienced it," Andrew said.
Last year, 5,205 people requested shelter from Grassroots. Those staying at the shelter are assigned case managers to help with finding jobs, budgeting, parenting, and referrals for mental health, social services and addictions treatment, if needed. In addition to the shelter, Grassroots operates suicide prevention, runaway and other crisis programs.
Cathy Smith, the coordinator of Change Matters, said it was important for students to learn that poverty exists in their county and that they are fortunate to have a place like Grassroots that helps solve it.
"The whole premise of Change Matters is to teach kids that they can make a difference in their community," Smith said.
The drive started five years ago, when Howard High School students sitting on the Elkridge Horizon Council said they wanted to do something about the problem of homelessness along the U.S. 1 corridor. Smith, who works with the marketing and communications firm that represents Grassroots, became involved as the coordinator.
It was originally a project for high schools, but two years ago organizers decided to try it at the middle school level. Howard County public schools require students to complete 75 hours of service learning, and because that requirement is usually completed in middle school, they were looking for some meaningful projects, Smith said.
So far this year, Long Reach High School's girls varsity and JV field hockey teams have held a 5K benefit for Change Matters that raised $950. Other activities are planned at Howard County schools through the spring.
At Ellicott Mills, Goins said he was interested to see that the entire school staff was committed to the project.
"Partially we all see the value of this," Goins said. "It's also been a response to how the students have responded. In many ways, they have been inspirational to us. We've been blown away by the compassion and energy that they have shown to this project."
One example of such inspiration could be found in Spanish teacher Amber Burke, who carried a bag of quarters with her during the walkathon. She personally pledged a quarter to all 29 students in her seventh-grade class.
It was only $7.25, but it meant a lot to the students, she said. Some of them didn't have anyone else pledging for them.
"They were excited. They were definitely excited," Burke said.