When Caitlyn O'Berry learned that the average age of a homeless person in Fairfax County is 9, she was stunned. Being just 9 herself, it was a statistic that really struck a chord.
"I didn't know the average age was my age," said Caitlyn, a fourth grade student at Churchill Road Elementary School in McLean.
In the fall of 2006, students, parents and staff from Churchill Road Elementary School participated in a "Walk for the Homeless." The walk, which was organized by Caitlyn O'Berry's fourth grade teacher Colleen Newman, benefited Pathway Homes, a charitable organization that provides housing and supportive services to adults in Northern Virginia living with serious mental illness. Prior to the Walk, Newman invited her students to attend a "Help the Homeless" evening informational session so they could learn more about the cause. It was during this informational meeting that Caitlyn O'Berry first heard that children her age make up a large majority of the county's homeless population.
"Obviously she was surprised, as was I," said Caitlyn's mother Louise O'Berry.
At the meeting, a woman from Pathway Homes shared her personal success story, and Louise O'Berry said she believes the woman's anecdote also had an impact on her daughter.
"She had gone through the system and really turned her life around," said Louise O'Berry.
WHEN Louise and Caitlyn O'Berry returned home from the informational session, Caitlyn told her mother that she would like to help the homeless children. A speaker at the meeting had recommended book donations as a way to help children learn to read, while simultaneously making them feel connected. Caitlyn decided that she would collect gently used books for Pathway Homes.
"If the kids didn't have an education, I wanted to see if they could be helped to read," said Caitlyn.
Starting around the Thanksgiving holiday, Caitlyn placed a crate in front of her classroom at Churchill Road. She made a sign that read "Books for the Homeless" and posted it above the crate. Once it was full, she dropped it off at Pathway Homes.
"I did it for a couple of months and got about 30 books," she said.
Caitlyn said that she enjoyed the experience of helping others, and would definitely like to do more charitable work in the future.
"It made me feel really good inside," said Caitlyn.
Caitlyn's mother said she is very proud of her daughter for taking the initiative to help children less fortunate than her. Louise O'Berry also credits Caitlyn's teacher Colleen Newman for providing the initial motivation.
"She's a really wonderful teacher — she is such a great inspiration, especially for young girls, because she is very energetic," said Louise O'Berry. "I think it's great that these children get to focus on something other than themselves."