WASHINGTON — It’s in a mother’s nature to help her children, but one group of moms is doing what it can to help students across the nation.
Eleven mothers from metro Washington, D.C. banded together to find free housing for students coming to March for Our Lives on Saturday. The march is a student-led demonstration for school safety and stricter gun safety laws, created after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Florida killed 17 people in February.
These moms know students have the march planning under control, so they created March for Our Lives Lodging to support their efforts.
“We’re moms and it’s natural for us to help kids to address their logistics challenges and their other challenges, so it was a natural place for us to contribute,” said Deanna Troust, one of the co-founders of March for Our Lives Lodging. “I think moms are pretty good at recognizing it’s not about us, which is a critical part of our effort. Moms are just here to help.”
The group’s goal is to eliminate any barriers to students attending, whether it’s cost or not having a place to stay, Troust said.
“You can’t just go and book a hotel room when you’re underage. And it’s a fortune to stay in a hotel here,” the mother of two said. “There’s a lot of support for these kids. A lot of [them] have chaperones but some don’t.”
It all started with one tweet
Elizabeth Andrews sent out a tweet on February 18 saying she would help find free lodging for kids coming to the march, thinking nothing would happen. She only had 28 followers and she rarely tweeted.
“Nobody ever liked one of my tweets. I took a gym class and two hours later I had almost 1,000 likes. It was just crazy,” the mother of an 18-year-old said.
Andrews was overwhelmed by the volume of responses. A student from Iowa State asked where she and others from her dorm could stay. A mother from California sought a place for her and her two children.
The rest of the messages came from her own community, with people across Washington offering to open up their homes to marchers for free.
Andrews said she’s never been “a joiner” and never enlisted in the PTA. But the one little tweet became something she couldn’t ignore.
“I felt like I really had to do something. I could never live with myself if I didn’t do something,” the corporate tax lawyer said.
She text messaged Troust, her friend of 20-plus years, “‘Oh my gosh, there’s enough energy around this,'” Troust said. “We thought maybe this is something we can do. We’re all moms and we’re used to doing logistics for kids.”
As Andrews began researching, she realized there was a real need for an organization that provides housing. “I looked for a group who does lodging for this and I realized there wasn’t one,” she said.
Andrews and Troust, a strategic communications expert, joined forces with a few other mothers they knew. And Andrews connected with other mothers wanting to help via social media, bringing the group to 11.
The women met up in late February and within a week or so, they launched a website, social media pages and assigned themselves roles. It was the first time many of them had met in person.
Matching 500 guests based on the best fit
The group shared the registration page with PTA networks, churches and local community groups to spread the word. Local and national media reports about their efforts helped too.
Registrations for guests and potential hosts flooded the March for Our Lives Lodging website. The group matched more than 500 visitors with hosts. And, more than 1,600 people offered up their homes until the registrations were capped on Wednesday.
“It’s the most intense level of volunteering that you can do. You open your home to someone, have them stay there and have meals with them,” Troust said. “It’s a very high level of involvement that all these people were wanting to do without question.”
The mothers created a spreadsheet to match guests and hosts, as well as a Slack channel to stay organized with all the requests.
Two members of the all-mother team worked to match guests with the right host families. Some homes took in a couple students traveling together, while larger groups were sometimes split up between a few houses on the same block, Troust explained.
Organizers called guests to learn more about them and see if there were parts of town they preferred in a “hands-on process,” she added. And hosts weighed in if they already had children of their own that may get along well with a certain type of guest.
“They’re having the experience of meeting someone they don’t know and finding common ground on an issue,” Troust said. Some of the guests will be attending the march alongside their host families.
Before a guest and a host were even accepted, part of the team went through the registrant’s social media profile to make sure the person is who they say they are. After conversing with the guest, the team connected them to a potential host, who took it from there. Andrews also created a terms and conditions form for people to sign off on.
The detailed planning and the idea that mothers are helping students find places to stay afford a certain level of trust in the parents of the guests.
A group of Oregon teens are flying to Washington by themselves to attend the march. After they registered on the website, one of their mothers was relieved to speak with one of the lodging organizers.
“The mom was just over the moon at being to connect to someone, that we talked to her,” Troust said. “She suddenly felt comfortable because she was talking to someone for real.”
March for Our Lives Lodging is also the “preferred lodging provider” for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumni association, said Andrews. However, many of the MSD students are traveling to and from Washington in the same day, so they don’t need lodging.
Other groups around town had similar goals to match marchers with free housing. A few of those host collectors merged their lists into the March for Our Lives Lodging database. DC Teens Action, a student-led group from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, ran their own operation to find hundreds of students places to stay.
“We’re about supporting kids and making peoples’ lives better. This is not a competitive thing,” Troust said. “The more the merrier.”
Hosts who weren’t matched are helping in other ways
The number of people who volunteered to take in students was three times the student housing demand. Troust said the group has found other ways for the hosts who didn’t get guests to participate.
These people are hosting potlucks and sign-making parties the night before the march. Other people have offered to fetch students from the airport or bus station. All of these will be opportunities for locals to connect with the marchers.
Some of these people have said, “‘We’re thankful that you’re doing this. Do you need money? Can I make dinner for a host family? Can I pick up people from the bus station or the airport?’ I’ve never seen anything like it. It restores your faith in humanity,” said Andrews.
In the final stretch before the march, Julia Beck of the lodging group is making snack bags for the marchers. Volunteers will deliver the sustenance to students on the day of the march.
“Now we’re enriching the experience,” Troust said. “We found a lot of people places to stay and now we’re trying to make it as good as it can be.”
‘I’m hopeful with this group of kids’
The momentum brought forth by the MSD students behind #NeverAgain and now the March for Our Lives has given Andrews and the other mothers a lot of hope.
“I think that I’m hopeful that with this group of kids, it really is a tipping point,” Andrews said. “It just feels like it’s going to keep going.”
She says the March for Our Lives has also reinvigorated a network of people in Washington who are willing to help.
“There’s been a lot of negativity in this town lately, and for the past 18 months. We don’t always see it but there’s this community that’s here and ready to reach out,” Andrews said.
When the march is over, Andrews said she and others will be thinking about “how to keep this positivity engaged.”
Troust said she feels “blessed” to see how their lodging matching program grew and she sees potential.
“We could do more of this. It could be a platform. Maybe for a different event, or issue or different city,” she said. “It seems as if we’re onto something in terms of connecting people.”