Howard County Times

Howard County Changemaker Challenge winners put grants to good use

Beth Harbinson, founder of SOBAR, holds a tasting bar to test new recipes with some of her board members. Harbinson, one of the winners of the 2017 Changemaker Challenge, created the nonprofit SOBAR to serve imaginative non-alcoholic drinks as an alternative at social events.

When Beth Harbinson serves up non-alcoholic drinks to the board of her new nonprofit for a taste test, they know to expect the unexpected.

As executive director of Sobar, which takes its name from a mash-up of “sober” and “bar,” Harbinson is aiming to provide creative drink alternatives for public social events. She uses her colleagues as guinea pigs. They don’t mind.


With drinks that have catchy names like Baja Pearl and Drop the Mic and contain locally sourced ingredients such as honey and lavender, the ever-evolving beverage menu is key to Harbinson’s efforts to make Sobar a fixture at social events.

Harbinson, who has been in recovery for more than 13 years, was one of three winners to receive a $10,000 grant in the inaugural Changemaker Challenge in 2017 for their innovative ideas to bring about social change.


The others were Erin Cassell, for her proposal to erect artistic bus stop shelters along Route 1, and Danielle Staton, for her plan to help low-income students become the first in their families to go to college.

While the Horizon Foundation and the United Way of Central Maryland continue to monitor the work of their grant recipients, the sponsors have decided the time is right for round two of the competition.

Changemaker Challenge 2019 — which launched July 23 and runs through Sept. 16 — will dole out double the money and name four winners instead of three in November. This year’s grants will range from $10,000 to $25,000.

“There is innovation happening in the social sector and these fantastic ideas prove that,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy.

“The previous winners have made great progress,” she said. “But we have a community of changemakers in Howard County, and we’ll be looking for more fresh ideas from fresh faces.”

Serving alcohol-free drinks

Harbinson, who is executive director of Children’s Scholarship Fund Baltimore, said she came up with Sobar three years ago at a concert by Train and Maroon 5 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

“My friends and I went backstage and there we saw a beautiful bar filled with alcohol,” she said. “The only alternatives were water, soda and Red Bull, so I said to myself, ‘This stinks and this is wrong.’ ”

Harbinson began to envision an alternative bar that would serve appealing non-alcoholic options at a separate point-of-purchase. Since she adheres to a 12-step program, she knows firsthand how difficult it can be to confront temptation and stigma head on.


“We think everybody notices what we drink or don’t drink,” she said. “I also wanted to raise awareness of how we’re treating people who aren’t drinking alcohol at social events.”

Sobar served customers at a July movie night at Merriweather Post Pavilion and at more than a dozen other social events in the past year. Plans are underway for a “Sobar Soiree” for 200 guests at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City on New Year’s Eve.

Harbinson has set a goal of running her nonprofit full-time within six years.

Waiting for the bus

Erin Cassell lives across the street from a bus stop on Route 1 in Elkridge where there is no shelter and riders wait just feet away from fast-moving traffic.

Cassell, who owns a tie-dye business in Columbia called Roll Up N Dye, said she counted just three shelters at 25 bus stops between Elkridge and Laurel.

“It was terrifying to see people forced to stand three feet from Route 1 as trucks zoomed by at 60 miles an hour,” she said.


Safe and Beautiful Bus Stops was her winning solution, tackling the stop near her home first.

“The county has been very supportive and proactive,” she said. “Brian Muldoon from the office of transportation has been helping me navigate between property owners and the contractor.”

A concrete slab where the shelter will be erected has been poured, and work on installing accessible sidewalks is progressing, Cassell said.

But Cassell didn’t focus only on erecting a bus stop shelter in her Changemaker Challenge entry. She proposed adding a bench made of recycled materials, mosaic tile artwork, a native garden, free miniature library and recycling bins.

Students at the Maryland International School in Elkridge and Baltimore artist Eileen M. Gillan have assisted with beautification efforts.

“There are so many moving parts to this project,” Cassell said. “It’s been a slow and complicated process, but it’s moving along.”


Preparing for college

Danielle Staton, a Howard County native and Atholton High School graduate, won a 2017 grant for her concept of developing College Readiness Communities to help low-income students become the first in their families to attend college.

Staton, who is senior director of program for iMentor Baltimore, was the first in her family to earn a degree beyond high school, graduating from Boston University and then getting a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

She assisted eight high school seniors from low-income backgrounds in overcoming social and economic obstacles to continuing their education.

Guidance and support were provided to the students for more than a year prior to their college acceptance, focusing on issues such as financial aid, course selection, college selection, and SAT preparation. Logistics often meant the sessions were one-on-one instead of the group dynamic initially envisioned.

“I’m still working with these students over the summer and using unspent grant money to help them meet their expenses,” Staton said.

“The hope is that this program can continue,” she said, though she isn’t available to run it. “There’s still a need to increase opportunities for first-generation college students in Howard County.”


Getting to play

A program proposed by Tim Ryerson, executive director of the Ellicott City Soccer Club, didn’t win a grant, but has gotten national recognition nonetheless.

Video of his 2017 Changemaker Challenge presentation for Get on the Bus set off a wave of funding for an idea to cover membership costs and supply free transportation, uniforms, equipment and snacks for fourth and fifth graders from income-eligible families.

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“After we didn’t win, I sent the video out on social media,” said Ryerson, the youngest of four siblings who graduated from Oakland Mills High School.

Fifteen families belonging to Ellicott City Soccer Club, founded in 2014 to serve students across Howard County, contributed $12,500 in a couple months. That money and other funding has allowed the club to assist 80 students at Deep Run and Talbott Springs elementary schools.

The club’s model for instructing youths on and off the field differentiates its organization from other soccer clubs, Ryerson said, and that has propelled him to work on cultivating a national presence.

“After Maryland State Soccer Association recognized us as a grassroots program, USA Soccer gave the Nevada State Youth Soccer Association a $100,000 grant in February in support of Get on the Bus,” he said.


Ryerson expects to develop programs that focus on soccer and life skills in California and in other Maryland jurisdictions next year, but, he said, the sky’s the limit.

“We’ve set a goal of reaching 10,000 kids with Get on the Bus before the World Cup in 2026,” he said. “With the majority of those games to be played in the U.S., it’s a big deal.”

Contest rules for Changemaker Challenge 2019 are available at