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Washington, D.C., Residents House Students Coming In For Gun Control March

Mar 22, 2018
Originally published on March 23, 2018 2:01 pm

Some Washington, D.C.-area residents have created a free home-share network to provide lodging for hundreds of students traveling to the nation's capital on Saturday to demand action to end gun violence.

The "March for Our Lives" rally was spearheaded by student survivors in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month in Parkland, Fla, where 17 people were killed.

Inspired by the Parkland students' poise and conviction during interviews following the shooting, students at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., started DC Teens Action to try to help find student demonstrators traveling to Washington for the march a place to stay.

Phil Sturm, a Realtor who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., came across DC Teens Action's callout for potential hosts for student marchers.

"I'm going to be a host for actually 18 to 20 we think, possibly 20, that are driving up from North Carolina Friday," Sturm said.

By now he and his wife are pros at this.

"We have had people for Earth Day, for the Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart march — we had a houseful for that one — we had a lot of people for the Women's March," Sturm said.

Sturm said when he was younger, his mother would open up their Washington, D.C., home to relatives and their friends protesting the Vietnam War and the Cambodian incursion in the 1960s and 1970s.

He said accommodating demonstrators traveling to the Washington area so their voices can be heard is simply carrying on his mother's legacy.

"I get great energy from the young people. I think it's contagious."

Cindy Sherman, a speech language pathologist, lives in Northwest Washington, D.C., and is a mother of four. She is not involved with DC Teens Action. But a week after the Parkland shooting, she spent hours at her laptop emailing anyone she could think of to see about helping students find lodging.

"So within a week, I had about 130 families committed offering about 500 beds," Sherman said.

Not all of those were filled, but she still gets emotional at the outpouring of support she received for her effort.

DC Teens Action organizers found that the two biggest hurdles to students attending the march were transportation and lodging. They weren't in a position to address travel costs, said Gabrielle Zwi, 17, who is one of the organizers of the group.

"Because this is a student-centered movement, the majority of high-schoolers are under the age of 18, which means they can't book their own hotels and a few other things. So we decided to open our homes to those students," Zwi said.

After posting a message on social media, the group got offers to place approximately 800 students. But after eliminating offers that were too far away and some after doing "light background checks" on potential hosts, the group placed about 300 students.

Another organizer, Kate Lebrun, 18, who also attends Walter Johnson High School, said she really felt that school safety needed to be made a top priority in this country one week after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland.

Lebrun was taking part in an off-campus demonstration on gun violence in Washington, D.C., last month when she got an alarming message about her school.

"While I was down there, I got news from my brother that there was a bomb threat at our high school and that everyone had been evacuated to the football field," Lebrun said.

The bomb threat turned out to be a false alarm.

Still, she points out that she was born the year after the 1999 Columbine shooting and that school shootings have been a common occurrence in her lifetime.

"This has been the norm for us growing up. In schools, we practice what to do when there's a shooter. And it's been happening since as long as I can remember in school," Lebrun said.

Sherman says she has never participated in a demonstration before, but she will this weekend.

"I've cared about stuff, but I've never felt the need. I guess I never thought it would matter. But some reason I really think this matters, because it involves kids."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The student-led anti-gun violence rally March For Our Lives takes place in Washington this weekend. Since D.C. hotels are expensive, a number of area residents are opening up their homes free of charge to the students and families traveling to the nation's capital for the event. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Phil Sturm is a realtor who lives in Chevy Chase, Md.

PHIL STURM: I'm going to be a host for actually 18 to 20 - we think 18 but possibly 20 - that are driving up from North Carolina on Friday.

BOOKER: He's allowing a group of high school and college students to stay at his home so they can all take part in the March For Our Lives demonstration on Saturday. By now, he and his wife are pros at this.

STURM: We've had people for Earth Day. We have had people for the Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart march. We had a houseful for that one. We had a lot of people for the Women's March.

BOOKER: Sturm says when he was younger, his mother would open up their D.C. home to young people protesting the Vietnam War and the Cambodian incursion in the 1960s and '70s. He sees it as carrying on her legacy.

STURM: I get energy - great energy from young people. I think it's contagious.

BOOKER: Sturm came across a link asking for housing hosts online and was quickly connected with organizers of the group DC Teens Action. That's a group started by students at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md. It was formed after 17 people were killed at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last month. Seventeen-year-old senior Gabrielle Zwi is one of the DC Teens Action organizers.

GABRIELLE ZWI: We were looking at barriers, kind of what might keep students from coming to the March. And the two biggest things were transportation and lodging.

BOOKER: While Zwi says there is nothing she and her friends could do about transportation costs, they could help find homes for students. The group found room for nearly 300 people with folks coming from as far away as Washington state, California and Ohio.

Kate Lebrun is another student organizer with DC Teens Action. She says she was so motivated by the platform the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida created after their school shooting that she took part in a school walkout in Washington, D.C., a week later. It was a demonstration about guns and school safety. While at that march, she learned alarming news at her own high school.

KATE LEBRUN: While I was down there, I got news for my brother that there was a bomb threat at our high school and that everybody had been evacuated to the football field.

BOOKER: The bomb threat was a false alarm. Still, she says it drove the point home that something has to be done about keeping students safe while at school.

LEBRUN: This has been the norm for us growing up. In schools, like, we practice what to do when there's a shooter, and it's been happening as long as I can remember in school.

BOOKER: Cindy Sherman lives in northwest Washington, D.C., and is a mom of four. She's not involved with DC Teens Action, but a week after the Parkland shooting, she spent hours at her laptop, emailing anyone she could think of to see about helping students find lodging.

CINDY SHERMAN: You know, so within a week, I had about 130 families committed, offering about 500 beds.

BOOKER: Some hotels don't have 500 beds.

SHERMAN: I know. I know. It's so funny. I still get emotional. It was unbelievable to me - people's response.

BOOKER: Sherman says she's never participated in a demonstration ever in her life. But she will this weekend, marching alongside students.

SHERMAN: I've cared about stuff, but I've never felt the need - I guess, I never thought it would matter. But for some reason, I really think this matters.

BOOKER: She says because this time it's a movement that involves kids. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington.

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