Atholton High volunteers

Students from after-school clubs at Atholton High School have volunteered at the neighboring Tubman Head Start Center since 2005. The student volunteers were named Volunteer Team of the Year. (Submitted photo / March 20, 2014)

After retiring from his government job in 2008, Steve Sternheimer began what he calls "a second career," volunteering.

Each week, the Columbia resident drives seniors everywhere from doctor's offices and the grocery store to church and even the hair salon as part of Neighbor Ride, a volunteer-based transportation service. In a year, he drives almost 5,000 miles so seniors who cannot drive or have limited driving abilities can reach their destinations.

"He's always willing to show up and take a shift," said Colleen Konstanzer, Neighbor Ride's community outreach coordinator. "He's so enthusiastic about Neighbor Ride and service that it's contagious."

That enthusiasm, dedication to service and the countless seniors he has helped, is why the Association of Community Services of Howard County will honor him March 28 with the Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Volunteer of the Year Award.

The award is one of seven Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards to be given during a luncheon at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

"It's not just a celebration of the winners but a celebration of the good work all the service providers give," says Joan Driessen, executive director of ACS.

Founded in 1963, ACS is a network of nonprofit and human services providers in Howard County. It began awarding the Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards, named after a former director of the county's Department of Social Services, in 1975.

Each year, a membership committee reviews nominations and selects winners for five of the awards: Volunteer of the Year, Volunteer Team of the Year, Employer of the Year, Employee Team of the Year and Business of the Year. Members of the ACS board of directors chose Legacy Award winners.

Howard County has a long history of helping its residents in times of need, Driessen said.

"There's a real spirit in this community that individuals make an impact, and we can solve the problems that exist," she said.

Still, those who go above and beyond to help others don't get the recognition they deserve, Driessen said. The Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards is just one way to acknowledge their efforts.

"It always helps to know your good work is recognized, even though most of them are incredibly humble," Driessen said.

This year, ACS will present Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards to the following people and groups:

Steve Sternheimer, Neighbor Ride (Volunteer of the Year) — Sternheimer learned early on the importance of community service. When he was a child, his parents started a homeless shelter for families in Nashville, Tenn. Since then, he said he lives by the saying, "You make a living by getting. You make a life by giving."

Sternheimer, 71, is fluent in Russian — a skill that comes in handy when transporting many of the county's Russian-born seniors for Neighbor Ride. He is also the first to volunteer for community and hospital health events to explain the organization and recruit new members, Konstanzer said.

"It's clear he believes in everyone's responsibility in impacting your community and making it a better place," she said.

Sternheimer, whose wife, Sue, also volunteers with Neighbor Ride, said he thinks of Neighbor Ride as an investment in others' futures, as well as his own. "We'll all be there some day," he said.

Atholton High School Head Start volunteers (Volunteer Team of the Year) — To the 3- and 4-year-olds at the Tubman Head Start Center in Columbia, the visiting Atholton High School students are not just teenagers. They are "big friends" from the "big school," said Mary Brezinski, the school's work study coordinator and transition specialist. And when the "big friends" sit down to read with the "little friends," play a game with them or bring them on the high school's athletic field to march with the marching band and cheer with the cheerleaders, "magic happens," she said.

At-risk children learn how important — and how much fun — high school is, while the teens learn how their lives can impact others, Brezinski said.

"They're heroes," she said of the teens.

Atholton High students have partnered with the neighboring Head Start center since 2005. They set up a lending library for Head Start parents. They held a DVD drive for children's, G-rated movies. They built a computer lab for the children with help from the Lazarus Foundation, a Columbia nonprofit that refurbishes old machines. They even took professional-style family photos for the Head Start families.

"Every year, there's something different happening here," Brezinski said.

Almost 500 students from 32 different after-school clubs volunteer with the children. Some students even volunteer each of their four high school years, Brezinski said.

"They're stepping out of their comfort zone to do this, but I haven't lost anyone yet," she said.

Anne Markson, director of programs and services for the Howard County Community Action Council, nominated the volunteer team, saying the students exemplify true dedication to helping the county's low-income population.

"Hundreds of students have worked on these projects over the years, and we know that each takes the gift of giving with them into their adult life when they leave Atholton High," she said.

In February, the Head Start program moved to a new location in Fulton. Still, the distance won't stop the partnership, Brezinski said.

"It's united our building in a way that's unique, and everybody wins," she said.

Linda Hayes, Howard County Link (Employee of the Year) — Every week, Linda Hayes talks with county residents facing eviction or loss of electricity because they can't pay the bills. The Ellicott City resident talks with people in desperate need of food, clothing and medicine for their children. She talks with people searching for a job. And then, she gets them the help they need.

As director of Howard County Link, a nonprofit outreach ministry of Bethany and Emory United Methodist churches in Ellicott City, Hayes is both a resource and advocate for residents in emergency situations. She and several volunteers connect callers on the crisis helpline with everything from area food banks to intervention centers. They also work on the caller's behalf in urgent situations.

For example, one caller battling brain cancer could barely speak when she asked for help getting her power restored. Hayes and her team immediately stepped in.

"We told her, don't worry about this," Hayes said. "Go fix yourself a cup of tea. We'll make the calls."

Since Howard County Link opened in March 2013, it has served more than 1,400 people, including 670 children. Hayes is one of the main reasons for the ministry's success, said the Rev. Martin P. Brooks, pastor at both churches.

"Linda has a passion and enthusiasm for helping people that knows no boundaries," he said.

While the job can be difficult at times, Hayes said she wouldn't have it any other way. "There's nothing more satisfying in life than being able to make a difference in somebody's life when they are in a difficult place," she said.

FIRN (Employee Team of the Year) — In its first year, the Columbia-based Foreign Born Information and Referral Network provided support and answered cultural questions for residents from 10 countries.

Now, more than 30 years later, it provides immigration counseling, citizenship classes, interpreting and translation services, tutoring and referrals to residents from more than 75 countries who speak more than 60 languages.

Howard County is known for its diversity, and much of that diversity is from foreign-born individuals, said Hector Garcia, executive director. But being foreign brings its own set of issues, he said. Foreign-born residents often need help getting a work permit, finding a job, getting a green card or even signing a lease. That's why FIRN's team of eight staff members works 12 to 16-hour-days if needed to meet their needs, Garcia said.

"A lot of issues are urgent," Garcia said. "No other agency in Howard County takes care of foreign-born individuals."

And the need is only growing. Last year, FIRN provided information and referrals to more than 15,000 people through phone calls, social media interaction and in-person interaction. It provided immigration counseling to more than 3,000 people.

Given the number of people touched by FIRN, Garcia said the ACS award is well-deserved.

"If people know what we do, it would be easy to decide," he said.

Wegmans (Business of the Year) — Wegmans stores have a long history of helping the surrounding communities, so it only made sense to continue that tradition when the grocery store chain opened its Columbia store in June 2012, said Wendy Webster, store manager.

The store sponsors the Special Olympics Howard County's Inspiration Walk, providing healthy snacks and walking with participants who need assistance. Wegmans also works with the Arc of Howard County to provide jobs for people with developmental disabilities. In May, the store will host the Hope Factory's Happy Hope Bag Project, where volunteers stuff everything from crayons and colored pencils to toothbrushes and lip balm into bags for children undergoing treatment at area hospitals.

Throughout the year, Wegmans also partners with United Way of Central Maryland for volunteer projects and special events. And since May 2012, the store has donated more than 64,300 pounds of food to the Howard County Food Bank and area food pantries.

"Wegmans is a true community partner that goes above and beyond for their employees, their customers and the community as a whole," said Amanda Pizzurro, associate vice president of development for United Way of Central Maryland.

With more than 600 employees, the challenge is not finding someone to volunteer but finding enough volunteer opportunities to go around, Webster said.

"This is our home, too, and it's our neighborhood," she said. "We want to make the neighborhood strong, and a neighborhood that's strong makes our store strong."

Del. Elizabeth Bobo and Sen. James Robey (Legacy Awards) — For more than 35 years, Del. Elizabeth "Liz" Bobo has held elected office. She served two terms on the Howard County Council and one term as Howard County Executive. In 1995, Bobo became a member of the House of Delegates, representing District 12B in Howard County. And now, after 20 legislative sessions in Annapolis, she is retiring.

Sen. James "Jim" Robey served as Howard County Chief of Police from 1991 to 1998. He then served two terms as Howard County Executive. In 2006, Robey became a member of the state Senate, representing District 13 in Howard County. He, too, is retiring at the end of this term.

Because of their lifetime of work in Howard County, the ACS board chose Bobo and Robey for the Legacy Awards, Driessen said.

"[Through] their commitment, particularly to the clients we serve … the two of them have really represented their best interests at the county and state level," she said.

Board members noted Bobo's efforts to close the gap between the county's richest and poorest residents, as well as Robey's work ensuring the safety of school-aged children and victims of violence.

Both Bobo and Robey said they are honored to receive Legacy Awards.

"An award coming from ACS has a very deep meaning for me," Bobo said.

Many of the ACS member organizations, including FIRN, formed while Bobo served on the Howard County Council, and she has helped those organizations grow through the years.

"It's very humbling," Robey said of the award.

Robey has worked with several ACS member organizations, including as a volunteer driver for Neighbor Ride.

While Bobo and Robey are thankful for the awards marking their careers of service, don't expect their efforts to stop just because they are leaving political office, they both said.

"What else would I do with my time if I didn't stay active in public service?" Robey said.

"I plan to stay around, and I plan to use my voice," Bobo added.

The 39th Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards will be presented Friday, March 28 at noon at the Ten Oaks Ballroom, 5000 Signal Bell Lane, in Clarksville. Tickets range from $55 to $65 for individual members and nonmembers, , to $600 for a nonmember table of 10. For more information, go to acshoco.org or call 410-715-9545.