Volunteers fan out across Northwest Philadelphia for MLK Day of Service events

From the hallway outside his office in Martin Luther King High School, Principal William Wade could hear the Philadelphia Orchestra warming up in the auditorium, which is nestled behind a wall featuring the text of the school namesake’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Wade, who donned a MLK “Day of Service” T-shirt at the West Oak Lane school on Monday morning, explained that the crowd would soon be arriving for the 22nd annual MLK Tribute concert, so he did not want the dozens and dozens of volunteers onhand to paint the walls nearby. The fumes. The potential mess. It would be a distraction.

However, scattered throughout the building, people wearing similar T-shirts were hard at volunteer-work. They were cleaning, organizing, repairing, organizing and performing a variety of tasks that Wade said weren’t completed before MLK opened as a Promise Academy in September.

“Today helps us catch up,” said Wade, the first-year MLK principal who has worked in the district for the past three years by way of growing up in Chicago and going to college at Alcorn State. “But, we’ve come a long way. This building was in bad shape when we got it.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Volunteer events throughout the country were part of a day of service to pay homage to King’s accomplishments. Looking at the school as a microcosm of that, Wade noted that students and the neighborhood have bought into an effort to transform MLK High. He noted that it was a challenge walking in.

“Everybody knew that something had to happen,” he noted. “The results will speak for the loudest, at the end of February. From all indications, there has been [PSSA test score] progress at all the Promise Academies.”

With volunteers tidying the building (built with a 3,000-student capacity, it currently serves 868 youths), it helps show the children that the faculty’s drive to pay close attention is not merely lip service, said Wade, noting that, “We need to be positive influences in their lives.”

Positive influences in their communities

To be sure, the MLK High efforts were not a local anomaly.

At Germantown Friends School, there was a morning of volunteer events both on and off campus. The upstart Germantown United Community Development Corp. planned to give the Chelten Avenue business corridor a good sprucing up in the wake of a neighborhood-mainstay street cleaner being laid off recently.

Over at the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center community garden, Vicki Mehl, Keisa Thompson and Naomi Carter spent the morning cleaning up litter and removing weeds from the property which features 40 plots.

Mehl, president of the Wayne Ave. and Hansberry St. private community garden, emailed to members and neighbors to share word of this first-ever MLK Day cleanup effort which they intend to continue. She hoped to reinforce the fact that the garden is not a members-only affair; they want to be part of the community itself. Members grow tomatoes, peppers, collards, kale, cabbage and flowers at the spot where five of the patches are dedicated to the City Harvest program.

“It delights me when non-members show up,” she said.

So, Mehl was delighted when Thompson showed up. A next-door neighbor, she, her husband and their child attend events at the garden center. When the Day of Service arrived, “it was nice to be able to do something right in my community.

Carter, who is a member, concurred, noting that the garden gives back to the J.B. Kelly Elementary School around the corner, where she is a teacher. “This is about bridging the gap with the community,” she said, mentioning that gardeners there help students with the school’s garden as well.

A call for longer-term efforts

That sentiment carried over to Vernon Park, where a separate clean-up effort brought neighbors, the park’s “friends” support group, Germantown Friends School, students from Villanova University and even a city Parks and Recreation Department representative together.

Their aim, despite the frigid Monday morning temperatures, was to tidy up the park and its rain garden.

Volunteer James Corey extended the reach beyond the park’s fences by cleaning up a bus-stop area on Greene Street. “

“We’re out here often, but today is for the MLK Day of Service,” said Ruth Seeley, vice president of Friends of Vernon Park. She noted a marked increase in litter in the Chelten Avenue business district since the Germantown Special Services District laid off an affable street cleaner named Omar in December. “But, this can’t just be a Martin Luther King Day thing. We have to take a short-term fix and make it a long-term push.”

“He gave his all”

Hot chocolate and coffee were waiting for volunteers as they trickled into Piney Grove Baptist Church for the congregation’s first-ever day of service event. The Logan-based church isn’t new nor is its participation in the annual holiday that honors the civil-rights legend. This is the first year, though, that Piney Grove organized its own service project.

“We want to continually be an example to our kids for generations to come. They can say that their church was definitely honoring Dr. King and keeping his legacy alive,” said Joyce Love Paul, the pastor’s wife.

More than 25 people braved the wintry air to help rake leaves outside of Logan Elementary or collect garbage from surrounding sidewalks.

Drew Brown, from Chestnut Hill, came with members of a Boy Scout chapter he helps lead. He said his group always leaves the places it uses cleaner than when they came.

“In a neighborhood, we recognize that litter can have a negative impact on people’s emotions and hope,” said Brown.

Saidas Foster, who directs an afterschool program nearby in North Philadelphia, said trash is a big issue in the area.

“People kind of think ‘It’s not my job,’ but it’s kind of everyone’s job in the community to help clean up,” said Foster, who came with her sister Amira Barnes.

Barnes figured she should help for a few hours on her day off from school. “I didn’t want to just be home,” the high-school freshman said.

Paul agreed with the sentiment that this is not a holiday for relaxing.

“He gave his all,” she said. “So the least we could do is something on this particular day.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal