Thousands Heed the Call To Serve
Volunteers Do What They Can To 'Push This Nation Forward'

By Nikita Stewart and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers in the Washington region and throughout the country turned out to do good works for their communities yesterday, an overwhelming response to President-elect Barack Obama's call for a day of public service in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

They crowded into soup kitchens to feed the homeless, flooded school hallways to paint walls and flocked to neighborhood parks to pick up trash in what may have been the largest day of national service ever. It was propelled by the same kind of millions-strong network of e-mail and text messages that marked Obama's presidential campaign.

The impact was particularly strong in Washington, bolstered by the thousands of people who arrived in recent days to take part in the inauguration and who eagerly joined the area's community service activities.

"We don't want to just use it to win elections," Obama said yesterday while painting at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a homeless shelter for teens in Northeast. "We want to use it to rebuild America."

The definition of service included preparing taxes, giving massages, collecting bicycles to send to Africa and cleaning children's teeth. The good deeds dotted the region, from a school supply drive in a Bethesda living room to the makeover of a holding room for foster children in Arlington County.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee reported that volunteers had signed up to fan out for 12,100 events around the country, more than double the 5,000 projects recorded last year by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. Philadelphia had 65,000 people participating in about 900 projects, according to Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

About 12,000 people filled RFK Stadium in the District, where Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were among the volunteers who put together more than 85,000 care packages for the troops.

"I never volunteered on Martin Luther King's birthday before," said Mary Rogers, 43, a Realtor who grew up in Southeast. "But it was really nice. People came from all over -- from London, from all walks of life, all over the U.S. are here. And everyone had one goal in mind, to see what we need to do to push this nation forward."

The celebration of the King holiday, first observed 23 years ago, is often recognized through tributes to the slain civil rights leader, but not with an established ritual for the day. In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a national day of service.

Denise Gibson and Erin and Karen Wahlberg said they had no idea that volunteerism was one of the purposes of the King holiday -- until the Obama e-mails started coming.

"We had decided that this was a way to be a part of the inauguration," said Gibson, 41. "We don't have tickets to anything. We're not going to any balls."

They looked for a service project by logging on to the Web site and entering the Zip code of their hotel on Connecticut Avenue. They settled on the Loaves and Fishes Meal Program at St. Stephens and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights, where about 200 men were going to feast on baked chicken, collard greens, baked beans and cookies.

But too many volunteers came, and the Long Island trio was among the would-be helpers who had to be turned away. Sandra Moore, a regular volunteer at the kitchen who was in charge of delivering the bad news, handed out printed instructions for another service project cleaning up in nearby Mount Pleasant.

Across town, Peggy Thompkins was at a service project closer to home.

She was scrolling through all the volunteer opportunities online, she said, when an address stopped her: 500 block of 25th Place NE.

"Oh my gosh," she said. "Oh my."

That's where she lived as a little girl in the late 1940s and '50s, roller-skating every day with her best friend.

She had thought about volunteering. "Then when our president . . ., " and here she paused and smiled, savoring those last words, " . . . Barack Obama, said, let's everybody do something to reach out and help somebody. I thought, let's look at the Web site and see what I can do."

Yesterday, she joined a group of about 20 volunteers, with her sweat shirt hood over an Obama knit hat and an orange parka pulled tight, and grabbed a rake from Lisa White, a homeowner on the block near Benning Road and RFK Stadium.

Neighbors and strangers young and old, white and black, raked, picked up cigarette butts and all the little plastic bags that used to hold drugs, stuffed trash into big garbage bags, and talked.

Within a couple of hours, the block was clean. They ate doughnuts, and someone suggested a photo. Thompkins came hurrying from the other end, where she had been sweeping one last little thing, and joined the others, all smiling for the group picture.

Dentist Maqsood Chaudhry, meanwhile, was helping children smile.

There was an everyday quality to the hubbub at Grove Dental Clinic in the Baileys Crossroads area of Fairfax County: An Afghan family in for cleanings; dental assistants from Russia, Somalia and Pakistan scurrying from one partitioned patient to the next; TV monitors tuned to the Al Jazeera television network.

Chaudhry and the clinic's four other dentists toiled all day providing free cleanings to children and cancer screenings to adults as part of Obama's call to service. The clinic was a beehive of activity, the sound of polishers drifting from some cubicles and the soft tones of dentists purring, "Open, please," emanating from others.

Some acts required personal sacrifice. Seven-year-old Natalia Polo rode right up to the front desk of a warehouse in Rockville where volunteers were accepting donated bicycles to send to Africa, and with a smile, hopped off her pink bicycle and gave it to the smiling lady.

She loved her bike, she said, but now that she had a new one at home, it was time to give someone else a chance. Sister Luciana, 2, was a little less sanguine when it came time to part with her tricycle. There were some tears, but her father, Luis, took her into his arms and gave her a hug.

Other goodwill acts throughout the day were less intimate but carried the spirit of being part of a movement. Volunteers trudged up and down the narrow strip of riverside park in Alexandria known as Dyke Marsh, filling plastic trash bags with semi-frozen garbage -- a pacifier, a seagull carcass, dozens of tennis balls and beer bottles, hundreds of foam cups and plastic bags.

Hundreds arrived at Anacostia Park to help clean up the riverfront, picking up bits of refuse that added up to an 8-foot-high pile of orange garbage bags by day's end.

Iris Edwards, 44, often came to Anacostia Park where she remembered having parties, Easter egg hunts and enjoying the river breeze. What she didn't do as a child was worry about the quality of the river itself. "I wonder which one of these bottles is mine," she said as she gathered litter along the shoreline. "Right now we're all wondering what we can do to help this country. You feel compelled to take part."

Staff writers Lori Aratani, Michael Birnbaum, William Branigin, Pamela Constable, Amy Gardner, Ashley Halsey III, Philip Rucker and Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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