1,000 volunteers will paint inspirational murals at Kensington High on MLK Day

Anisa Shafiq uses a slide projector to mark out a mural of Malala Yousafzai in a hallway of Kensington High School.

Anisa Shafiq uses a slide projector to mark out a mural of Malala Yousafzai in a hallway of Kensington High School. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

City Year, a service organization that puts young people into public schools to support teaching staff, has spent the last few months preparing Kensington High School for 100 new murals, to be painted by 1,000 volunteers.

The small- to medium-sized murals of inspirational figures and quotations – including Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzai, and Barack Obama will adorn the hallways, stairwells, cafeteria, and gymnasium.

“Right outside the gym, we have quotes by [Olympic gymnast] Simone Biles and Jesse Owens,” said Jheri Grossman, the City Year civic engagement manager. “We have specific inspirations for girls’ self-esteem in the bathrooms. We have ‘Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds’ in the cafeteria.”

Grossman and her team from City Year (a program of Americorps) use video projectors to throw images and text on the walls, then carefully sketch the mural outlines in pencil. They are preparing for a wave of 1,000 volunteers on Monday – Martin Luther King Jr. Day – who will spend the day painting in the colors.

Kensington High will be the scene of Philadelphia’s second-busiest volunteer event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; the first will be Girard College, the hub for Global Citizen, the organization that created the MLK Day of Service concept. About 5,000 people are expected there.

Most of the 1,000 volunteers planning to paint at the high school come from the deep bench of City Year supporters, including past and current corps members as well as corporate partners.

City Year has long been a presence in Kensington High School, where its corps members act as teacher aides, informal student counselors, and generally extra hands. They are at school all day, every day, greeting students at the door at the beginning of the day and wishing them well at the end.

The walls of Kensington are usually hung with student’s work, which has been removed to allow  painting the permanent murals. Grossman has left space on the walls for some of the student work to be returned for display.

“Everything we do is collaboration. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration,” said Grossman. “We have a member of my team who focuses on researching and understanding this community, understanding the students here; I had an opportunity to talk to teachers and get their feedback. We make sure that what goes up on the walls is really going to inspire the student here.”

Volunteers will also assemble bookshelves and wooden benches in a makeshift woodworking shop, to be set up in the gymnasium.

Every year, City Year selects one site to host a major Day of Service event, where it can bring the full weight of its volunteer infrastructure. The principal of Kensington High, Jose Lebron, said having his school selected is a shot in the arm.

“More often than not, Kensington is projected from a negative perspective,” he said. “As a result of Kensington having been chosen as the hub for this important event, it’s a way for the public, in general, to realize, hey, there are also some very good things that are taking place in the Kensington community.”

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