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Inspired into action

Teenager an advocate for youths making a difference in the world

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Amber Coffman hugs a boy at one of many events that she and Happy Helpers for the Homeless hold for children every year. This June 1999 outing was called "Stand for Children"  

September 18, 2000
Web posted at: 2:34 PM EDT (1834 GMT)


In this story:

A life of public service

'They can have an incredible impact'




Profile: Amber Coffman
Age:18
Hometown: Glen Burnie, Maryland
School: Freshman at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California
Motto: "Be the change you want to see in the world," Mahatma Gandhi
Favorite music: Christian music from "The Passion Tour"
Favorite movies: "City of Angels," "American History X," "Fight Club"

(CNN) -- Some students may think book reports are a waste of time, but not Amber Coffman.

A book and subsequent report on Mother Teresa inspired Coffman to start something much bigger than most adults would expect from a pint-size 10-year-old.

While she couldn't quite build houses like Mother Teresa and her followers, Coffman felt she could help those without houses, a priority underscored by her first visit to a soup kitchen two years earlier. Happy Helpers for the Homeless grew out of these inspirations -- and, specifically, Coffman's kitchen -- into 49 states and several countries.

"I decided that I wanted to do something," Coffman said. "Mother Teresa did homes: I did lunches."

For the next seven-plus years, Coffman and her group of young volunteers devoted the better parts of their weekends to Happy Helpers.

On Saturdays, they would collect food donations, pack bag lunches and distribute them to the homeless in Coffman's hometown of Glen Burnie, Maryland. On Sundays, the group would pass out the vast majority of the lunches to others in need in Baltimore, about 10 miles to the north.

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Coffman and fellow volunteers pass out food to the homeless in downtown Baltimore during a blizzard in January. Despite the horrific weather, 150 homeless people came out to get lunches  

This fall marks the first time since February 1993 that Coffman, now 18, hasn't been in her kitchen making sandwiches -- typically 600 per weekend. In late August, she began her freshman year at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

Yet while Coffman may be almost 2,500 miles from Glen Burnie, the spirit that spawned Happy Helpers still burns strong. In several appearances on TV and radio shows and talks around the country, Coffman has proven a staunch advocate of youth service.

"Young people want to find where they fit into society… and they want adults to take them seriously," she said. "They should follow through. They can have such a huge impact on our world."

A life of public service

While not comparing her situation to the homeless, Coffman said growing up in a single parent household made her "know what it's like to need." Amber and her mother, Bobbie, have tackled big and small challenges together.

"I've never known my Dad," she said. "There have been tough times."

Still, these difficulties have not clouded Coffman's outlook on life. She said she laughs at everything, not least of all herself.

And Coffman has crammed a lot into her 18 years. She has become a prominent local and national figure -- as a teen pageant winner and, more extensively, as a young volunteer. "I have committed my life to volunteering," she said.

As an ambassador for America's Promise and the Heart of America Foundation, she talks to student groups and organizations across the country about Happy Helpers and youth service.

Coffman has also appeared on Oprah Winfrey's and Montel Williams' TV shows. A Miss Teen Maryland Teen USA in 1998, she served as Miss Young America in 1999. Crayola even named two crayons - "Purple Heart" and "True Blue" -- in Coffman's honor.

But back in Glen Burnie, Coffman makes time to be a typical teenager. She works regularly as a waitress, a trade she said she will also pursue in California. Sometime soon, Coffman said she hopes to pick up the steel drum again, which she played when she was younger.

"I'm just kind of crazy. I like to have a good time," Coffman said. "I am very much go with the flow -- and whatever happens, happens."

'They can have an incredible impact'

What happens next is college, and most likely more public service. Coffman said she plans to join the Peace Corps after graduating from Pepperdine, but she doesn't know what her future holds beyond that.

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Coffman, right, celebrates at her birthday party in February. Coffman has been giving her birthday to the homeless for years by throwing a party for those who are homeless in the Baltimore area  

As for Happy Helpers, for the time being it's still based out of Coffman's kitchen in Glen Burnie. Amber's mother will run the show until another young leader takes over.

No doubt, Coffman has left her mark -- her greatest legacy, to date, the expansion of the Happy Helper program nationally and internationally.

"It's growing," she said. "It's so cool, because I've been doing it for so long."

The Maryland teenager said that others her age, and younger, can and should try to attain the satisfaction that comes with creating something and making a difference.

"Sometimes kids don't realize where they fit in," Coffman said. "But they can have an incredible impact on people. ... You have the skills and the ability -- you just need time and love to share."



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