“As a DC resident and mother of a high schooler, I’ll help to find free lodging for kids and their families coming to this March,” Elizabeth Andrews, a lawyer, tweeted Feb. 18.
Without even realizing it, Andrews had found a need that was growing by the day: Students planning to descend on D.C. this weekend to participate in the March for Our Lives needed a place to stay.
If they are under 18, booking a hotel suite or a room on Airbnb is out of the question. For those who are of age, those options can be prohibitively costly. Couch surfing or staying with friends would work if they know someone in the area, but many do not.
So, Andrews, who has never so much as volunteered to lead a committee on the Parent Teachers Association at her teen daughter’s school, got to work trying to find housing for what could be thousands of students.
Less than two weeks later, she and a group of seven other mothers had started a full-fledged organization. They had a website, infrastructure, roles.
The group, dubbed March for Our Lives Lodging, is one of several efforts in the D.C. area with a singular goal: to provide out-of-town students with a free place to sleep and a community to help them feel welcome.
George Washington University students will host other college students in their dorm rooms. Half a dozen students from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., signed up 250 of their peers across the country to stay in local homes through a group called DC Area Teens Action. Faith organizations have paired members of synagogues and churches from outside the D.C. region with local families.
“When we looked at reasons why students might not be coming to the [march], we noticed there were really two big ones: transportation and lodging,” said Gabrielle Zwi, 17, one of the founders of the Teens Action group and a senior at Walter Johnson High. “We don’t have much we can do about transportation, but we live here, and we have homes here, so, we thought, we can offer those.”
Andrews and her team signed up more than 330 families outside the D.C. area to stay with local hosts. They have more than 2,500 beds still available.
Every person who wants to host or be hosted is subject to a vetting process that involves social-media background checks and a phone call to make sure everyone has similar expectations. For those under 18 traveling alone, parental consent is required.
Julie Stewart, former president of criminal-justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, runs what she calls the “matchmaking process.”
“When we first started this, we thought we’ll just match beds and heads, so you have three kids and a home with three beds? Put them together, and you’ve got a match,” Stewart said. “But as I started going through people’s social media pages to verify that they are who they say they are, I thought, ‘Well, this person has two teenagers so I don’t just want them in a place that has two beds. I want them in a place that actually has a teenager at home for them to bond with and relate to.’ I wanted to make this event memorable not just for what happens down on Pennsylvania Avenue, but for the whole experience, and that includes where they’re staying.”
Sometimes, she said, that means splitting up groups — like a group of six teenagers coming into town together, because, Stewart said, six teenagers in one house is a lot to ask of one family. Instead, the teens might be split into groups of three, staying next door to each other.
“A lot of these kids are minors who have no adults coming, whose moms are putting them on a bus or a plane, and we want to make sure we place them in a home where they feel like they’re going to be taken care of,” Stewart said. “Part of it is coming from me because I’m a mom, and I do what I’d like done for my kids in terms of safety.”
Among those who have been placed in various homes in and around the District are several students and alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman fatally shot 17 people on Feb. 14. That same day, two Maryland high schools were evacuated over bomb threats.
“It’s scary,” said Deanna Troust, whose daughter’s Northwest D.C. school was locked down earlier this month when authorities reported that a man at a nearby hotel was seen with a gun. “It’s terrifying to hear your own child talk about how scared they were, and that wasn’t even a shooting. That wasn’t even close to what those kids in Parkland went through. But she had to think about where she hid and where she planned to hide if someone got into the school. She had to think about whether the doors were locked, whether they could overturn the teacher’s desk and put it against the door — and they’re 12. No child should be strategizing how not to get killed while they’re sitting in school.”
Jon Zeitler said his family decided to get involved because his 17-year-old son felt energized to do more.
He and his wife, Cynthia Baker, will host two teenagers and a parent visiting from out of town.
“It seems like this is something these kids are showing to other kids,” Zeitler said of the Parkland students. “My son’s first reaction to school shootings and stuff like this is often, ‘What good is a (Woodrow) Wilson High School walkout really going to do?’ And you can tell him all you want that sometimes raising lots of voices together will make a difference. But it makes it real in a whole other way when you have these high school students, who are just like him, who went through what they just went through saying, ‘This is how we change things.’ ”
They are planning a potluck dinner Friday with other host families in their Chevy Chase neighborhood to bring students together and talk about why attending the march, a demonstration demanding safer schools and stricter gun laws, feels so important.
Some host families are planning block parties, sign-making events and community meals. One stretch of homes in D.C. that is planning to host 42 students from Florida State University in eight houses will host a Seminoles tailgate.
Students from Walter Johnson High will throw a meet-and-greet, followed by dinner for visiting students and their families with food donated by local restaurants. The next day, they will all head to the march, which begins at noon Saturday along Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Third and 12th Streets.
While the group of moms running March for Our Lives Lodging was meeting last week, their kids went to work packing brown-bag lunches for marchers. More lunch-packing drives are planned in the days ahead.
Robin Sandenburgh, who spent years living abroad for her job with the World Bank, said the communal spirit reminded her of her time in other countries, when she and her neighbors would take turns watching each others’ kids and hosting dinners and community potlucks.
She will be hosting four international college students in her Mount Pleasant home — from France, Germany and Mexico.
It seems without even realizing it, Andrews had found another need growing in the D.C.-area: to do something in the face of an issue that leaves many feeling powerless.
“It restores your faith in mankind a little, knowing that these people really care, and you start to think, ‘Wow, if we all banded together, just think of what we could do,’ ” she said.