Sweet Sixteen

updated 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

AMBER COFFMAN SHIVERS AS SHE offers sandwiches and reassurance to scores of homeless people who have gathered in front of Baltimore's City Hall on a cold Sunday afternoon. "You have to stand in line," she tells one man. To another, who disdains a banana and demands a cookie, she says, "You have to wait," softening the reprimand with a smile and a touch to his shoulder. She gives two bologna sandwiches to a small girl with braids, bending down to meet the child's eyes. "Here you go, sweetie," she whispers.

Five years ago, Amber, then just a young girl herself, wrote an essay that changed her life and, by extension, has improved the lives of others. Researching a paper about Mother Teresa for her fifth-grade class, Amber created Happy Helpers for the Homeless. Through her nonprofit group, she and her mother, Bobbi Coffman, use donated food to make meals for the hungry every weekend in Baltimore and their suburban neighborhood of Glen Burnie. What started out as 50 sandwiches has grown to 600.

Amber's charity has not gone unnoticed. Last spring she was honored at the Presidents' Summit for America's Future; one month later, Prudential Insurance Company gave Amber a $6,000 Spirit of Community Award. Crayola even recognized her as an "Ultimate True Blue Hero," putting her name on a new crayon and donating $10,000 to her organization. Except as a means to attract volunteers, the awards have nothing to do with Amber's devotion to the destitute. "It gives you a great feeling inside to see their smiles," says Amber, now 16, who uses the publicity as a platform to exhort church and civic groups to help the homeless. "It's one less meal they have to worry about."

At a time when many teenagers seem blinded by the reflection of their own self-absorption, Amber counters the stereotype. It's not that she does not cheer at basketball games with her boyfriend Dustin Abey, or cram for tests or swoon over Leonardo DiCaprio like other girls in her class. She even goes in for such lighthearted activities as beauty pageants (in fact, she walked away—in five-inch heels—with the 1998 Miss Maryland Teen U.S.A. title). But more than that, Amber, who attends the private Severn School on scholarship, manages to make time for others. Even on her birthday she eschews shopping sprees at the mall to throw pizza parties for the homeless with award money and babysitting earnings. "To do this one or two times is easy," says Leslie Leitch, director of Baltimore's Office of Homeless Services. "To do it for years is a commitment that takes a tremendous heart."

Credit for Amber's selflessness goes in large part to Bobbi, 40, a former army sergeant and single mother who introduced her only child to volunteer work after leaving the military in 1990 and the two moved to Glen Burnie. (Amber has never met her father.) Bobbi, whose childhood in the Pennsylvania coal-mining region was bereft of privilege ("I could really have used Happy Helpers myself," she says), phoned a shelter to offer her services. "I asked if they would also let an 8-year-old help," says Bobbi, who works evenings at a daycare center in a bowling alley. They said yes. "I found that the homeless kids were just everyday people. They were just like I was," says Amber. "After the first time I was hooked."

Amber's work is not without risk. Once the rent money was stolen from Bobbi's purse, and occasionally a fight will break out, as almost happened recently when Amber and her mom were distributing blankets and coats. At those times, Bobbi reverts to the sergeant she was, barking orders and, so far, getting results. But those occasions are the exception and have done nothing to sour Amber on her heart's work. "A lack of love is a hard thing," says Amber. "We tell them we love them and care about them."

More importantly, she adds, her work makes a difference. "We've had at least one gentleman come and tell us it was his last weekend. He'd found a job," she says. "You know you made a change in one person's life. That's what keeps me going."

LINDA KRAMER in Baltimore

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