Thousands find ways to serve others in honor of King Day

A look at how the Washington area celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
By Ashley Halsey III and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

With Haiti in ruins and the needy closer to home bearing the brunt of a sour economy, the transformation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday from a day of remembrance to one of action was evident across the Washington region and the nation Monday.

There were traditional prayers and shared memories of King and his message, but this year more than ever people plunged in to help those most in need.

In Southeast Washington, volunteers sorted and folded tons of donated clothing that will be shipped to Haiti. In Arlington County, people brought food to feed the hungry. In Bethesda, lunch bags were prepared to deliver to the homeless. In Sterling and Centreville, people donated blood. In Fairfax, families volunteered to tackle four community-service projects.

And so it went across the nation -- feeding, giving, building, repairing and reaching out with a spirit often absent from daily life. In Philadelphia, where the notion of devoting the holiday to public service first took root, an estimated 70,000 people set forth to carry out more than 900 projects.

Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast Washington was filled with volunteers and the smell of fresh paint Monday as several hundred people -- from White House staff members to concerned mothers -- pitched in to turn faded white walls to blue and yellow with brightly colored animals.

"We are grateful that people are taking interest in our school over here," said Principal Sharron Stroman, who leads the school of 360 students.

The event brought together people such as 31-year-old Macon Phillips, who manages the White House Web site, and Justin Wellington, a 16-year-old from Silver Spring who is part of a White House mentorship program. Phillips, who is white and grew up in Huntsville, Ala., said a lot has changed since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

"I think that on MLK Day it is cool to get out and get to know your community," he said.

More than 500 people turned out at Roosevelt Senior High School to renovate a main entrance that hasn't been used for several years.

"What better way to serve the community than through education?" said William Echbihi El Idrissi, who graduated from Roosevelt in 2008 and is a sophomore at George Washington University. "Money comes and goes, poverty can come and go, but the only thing that's sustainable, that will actually make us a better group, is to become intelligent . . . to create the thinkers of the next generation."

The day of action came 24 hours after President Obama spoke at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, urging Americans to "give something of ourselves to a cause that's greater than ourselves," in honor of King. It was an admonishment in keeping with Obama's oft-spoken belief that civil rights pioneers were the "Moses generation" that led the way, and that now the "Joshua generation" would "find our way across the river" together.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, have sought to demonstrate a personal commitment to public service through a variety of acts, including planting trees in a national park, loading backpacks with books and toys for children whose parents are in the armed forces, passing out Thanksgiving turkeys at a food bank and collecting donations for Toys for Tots at Christmas.

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