More than 5,000 Washington area students took part yesterday in what organizers called one of the largest youth volunteer efforts in the District's history, devoting a sun-filled springtime day to making a difference in their community.
The students, from preteens to college age, worked at more than 30 locations throughout the city. Some cleaned up parks, planted gardens, did yardwork for senior citizens and distributed care packages to the homeless. Others refurbished community centers, painted murals and aided Habitat for Humanity in building two houses for low-income families.
"I want to say, 'Yes, my community is great and I had a role in making it that way,' " said Michael Clark, 17, a junior at Hyde Leadership School in Northeast Washington. "A lot of youth in D.C. feel the same way."
Clark, elected Washington's youth mayor last August as part of a summer youth leadership program, helped plan yesterday's event, part of a broader National Youth Service Day involving more than 3 million people across the country.
For the second year, the local activities were organized by the D.C. Commission on National and Community Service, established three years ago by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said Deborah Gist, the commission's executive director. This year's registration of 8,000 -- including the 5,000 who worked yesterday and others involved in projects the previous day -- surpassed last year's total of 5,000, she said.
Gist, a former elementary school teacher, said that young people inherently like to help others and that providing early opportunities for volunteerism establishes a firm base for a life's dedication to volunteer work. At one site, she pointed to students signing a weather-resistant "commitment banner" promising to answer President Bush's call for every person to give 4,000 hours -- two years -- of volunteer work throughout their lifetimes.
Although most of yesterday's participants were from city neighborhoods, some drove in from Maryland and Virginia. Fifteen-year-old Chris Milne, a ninth-grader at Georgetown Preparatory School in Potomac, had signed up by e-mail to help with an ongoing Habitat for Humanity project at 54th and Clay streets NE.
Volunteer work "makes you feel good," Chris said as he measured 2-by-4s to be cut with a power saw by his father, George Milne, and Greg Ebron, owner of one of the houses being built. Also marking the boards was Ebron's son Michael Deloatch, also 15.
Jamin An of McLean, 16, had his first experience hanging drywall under the supervision of year-long volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, an international organization. "It's a lot of fun, and it's very fulfilling to get to know the family that will be living here."
Across the street, in a fenced area away from the heavy construction, Isabel Vega, the owner of the second house targeted by volunteers yesterday, watched as her three daughters -- Brianna, 11, Shaqueya, 8, and Pasha, 8 -- and other neighborhood children helped make picnic tables the two families will use after they move in late summer or early fall.
"I'm so excited I don't know whether I can wait another three months," said Vega, 34, a pharmacy technician and a correctional officer at the D.C. jail.
Many other locations also drew crowds.
At Langdon Park, on 20th Street NE, more than 250 students from 30 public and private schools divided up tasks. Younger ones assembled hygiene and information packages to be delivered to the needy through social service organizations, while older ones cleared brush and painted the park's amphitheater.
About 200 volunteers gathered at Kingman and Heritage islands to clean up debris along the Anacostia River.
About 80 more students helped operate a community health fair at Banneker Recreation Center, near Howard University in Northeast.
And 125 Red Cross youth volunteers taught emergency preparedness to children at Lincoln Heights Crisis Center, 50th Street NE.