Howard County is ranked among the wealthiest counties in the nation, which is why it may surprise some residents to hear about homelessness and poverty in their own backyard.
"Change Matters," a compaign organized by the Horizon Foundation, wants to dispel stereotypes about homeless people by educating students about poverty and how easily families can become destitute, even in the wealthiest of communities.
Cathy Smith, coordinator of Change Matters, works with teachers to tailor grade-specific presentations and activities designed to show that lazy, uneducated people are not the only people who become homeless or become alcoholics and drug abusers.
"As kids go through middle school and high school, they're going to be confronted with all types of issues–suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse," Smith told Patch. "We do our best to protect our children, but these issues are here."
Smith has extended the program to 23 schools in Howard County, and students have raised nearly $100,000 for the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center–the only homeless shelter and crisis assistance center in the county.
Last year, Grassroots provided shelter to more than 1,000 people in Howard County–including 19 families and 31 children–totaling more than 25,000 times someone in Howard County didn't have to sleep outside, according to its website.
Smith says getting students involved in helping those in need right here in Howard County make the experience more meaningful, as students discover they can help their friends and their neighbors in need.
"When you send your money out of the community, you don't necessarily know what's happening to it, how it's being used, how it's being spent," Smith said. "When you donate money right here in Howard County, to Grassroots, you know it may be helping a family living down the street."
Anna Katz, business manager for Grassroots, says requests for assistance have grown since the center opened in 1969, and particularly so after the recession began in 2008.
"We've certainly seen a huge increase of people calling the Grassroots hotline with financial and economic problems," Katz said. "It wasn't quite this much before the economic crisis…that went up something like 300 percent."
Smith and Katz recently spoke to students at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City about how even young people can make a difference for those living through difficult times.
Ellicott Mills Principal Mike Goins says he has seen students become more conscientious about local homelessness, especially those students progressing into their third year of the program.
"We've seen how quickly students develop a sense of compassion as they learn more about the issue of homelessness," Goins told Patch.
The program at Ellicott Mills leads to a Walk-a-Thon on Sept. 28 where students find sponsors to help them raise money for Grassroots. Other schools do activities as simple as taking change donations during lunchtime.
"A greater gift is helping our school community see that there's not a difference between you and me based on our income," Goins said. "We may look different, or we may have stereotypical images of being homeless, but when we really sit down and listen and learn more, we see that we're all the same."
See the list below for all schools participating in the "Change Matters" service learning program this year:
Hollifield Station Elementary School
St. Johns Lane Elementary School
Deep Run Elementary School
Burleigh Manor Middle School
Elkridge Landing Middle School
Folly Quarter Middle School
Glenwood Middle School
Patapsco Middle School
Lime Kiln Middle School
Hammond Middle School
Folly Quarter Middle School
Ellicott Mills Middle School
Murray Hill Middle School
Howard High School
Marriott's Ridge High School
Mt. Hebron High School
River Hill High School
Hammond High School
Glenelg High School
Reservoir High School
Wilde Lake High School
Centennial High School
Atholton High School