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.