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Thousands find ways to serve others in honor of King Day

By Ashley Halsey III and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; B01

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.

Last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the then-president-elect helped paint a homeless shelter for teenagers in Northeast Washington.

So it was no surprise that on Monday, when the Obama motorcade set out from the White House, the first couple's mission was to demonstrate the sort of civic activism the president had espoused the day before.

Obama rolled up his sleeves and pulled on a lime-green apron to help serve lunch to the hungry and homeless at So Others Might Eat, a 40-year-old soup kitchen in the District. As he dished out hot food, the president chatted with people who arrived in the grimy uniform of those who live on the streets, worn parkas and wool caps, their faces unshaven.

One woman was so surprised to see the president that she broke into tears.

"Let's go to work," he said, taking his station in the food line, prepared to serve paper plates of chicken and potato salad. "I'm ready!"

He shook hands with each person he served, greeting them with "How are you, sir?" and "Good to see you."

The first lady and the couple's children, Sasha and Malia, put on the green aprons and worked among the tables, asking people if they wanted more to eat.

"See if anyone wants coffee," Mrs. Obama instructed Sasha, 8, who handed out packets of sweetener while her mother poured.

The first lady's mother, Marian Robinson, carried a baking sheet filled with pastries to go with the coffee.

Members of Obama's Cabinet also participated Monday. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner prepared food for shelters at Washington Hebrew Congregation; Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. helped feed people at Church of the Epiphany; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar worked on a cleanup and beautification project at the D.C. War Memorial on the Mall; and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took part in an effort to paint Ronald Brown Middle School.

Staff writers Michael Fletcher, Victoria Riess and Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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