- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

At the heart of all that civilization has meant and developed

is “community” — the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture

of man to assume a semblance

of responsibility for his brother…All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

Martin Luther King Jr., Nashville, Tenn., 1962

Tucked away on a narrow stretch of street in a hilly section of Northeast Washington, homes with front porches rise on a site previously occupied by boarded-up public housing. Built by volunteers, these Habitat for Humanity homes at 54th and Clay streets NE are part of a nationwide effort to bring volunteers and the people they serve together, creating a community of service.

Nowhere is that effort more manifest than on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, which has been designated a special day of service for all Americans.

That’s always been basic to celebrations of the day, but passage of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act in 1994 codified the day as a time for everyone to “assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother.”

Interested in construction? Habitat for Humanity is building homes in Northeast. Like to paint? A myriad of painting projects is happening on that day, thanks to an injection of funds from federal, state and private agencies and from corporations. You can give massages, help people learn to fill out applications, and even take oral histories in some places.

You don’t have to be an expert for any of them. All you have to do is want to help.

“We don’t think Martin Luther King would be thrilled with a holiday that turned into another day at the shopping mall,” says Rhonda Taylor, associate director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

CNCS is the federal agency charged under the 1994 act with taking the lead in promoting and organizing King Day as a day of service. Under its umbrella are Americorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America. This year CNCS has earmarked $500,000 for Martin Luther King Day projects nationwide.

• • •

What makes the holiday observances particularly noteworthy this year is their scope. More than ever before, government agencies, faith-based groups, corporations, private organizations, and individuals are working together on projects that will make a difference.

“We’re seeing a new blend between corporate philanthropy and grassroots efforts,” says Brett Norton, development director for City Year, a national nonprofit organization under the Americorps umbrella. “It’s made so much more possible.”

Founded in Boston in 1988, City Year calls itself an “action tank” for national service and aims primarily at young people. Like many nonprofit service organizations, City Year benefits from corporate funding.

This year, volunteers from City Year will oversee the painting of the Federal City Shelter section of the Community for Creative Non-Violence at 425 Second St. NW, the nation’s largest shelter for the homeless. They’ll be able to do this in part because of the sponsorship of America Online and Blank Rome LLP, a national law firm. More than 200 volunteers from the community are expected to work in conjunction with City Year volunteers.

“We wanted to bridge the gap between Northwest and Southeast,” says Mr. Norton. “We want to bring the neighborhoods into the projects.”

• • •

The idea of outside volunteers working hand in hand with community members is integral to the philosophy of Habitat for Humanity, a national nonprofit, nondenominational Christian housing organization founded in 1976. Habitat has built more than 175,000 homes worldwide, all using “sweat equity,” allowing new homeowners to put a very personal stake into the homes they will inhabit.

The planned 53-home complex at 54th and Clay streets is the largest venture for Habitat’s D.C. affiliate, which completed a 37-home townhouse complex in Southeast in 2000.

Volunteers work year ‘round at the Habitat for Humanity site in Northeast, where eventually the two-story duplexes will be built and offered for sale at Habitat’s no-profit, no-interest price. It’s a chance for families who otherwise couldn’t become homeowners to live the American dream.

More than 40 volunteers regularly turn out on Saturdays. Lawyers work side by side with high school and college students, church folk, individual families, and the homeowners themselves.

Hundreds are expected at the Northeast site for the weeklong Martin Luther King celebration, “Remembering the Dream: Building Hope in Our Community.”

“We’re so very fortunate in terms of volunteers,” says Trina Ramsey, development director at Habitat for Humanity’s District affiliate on Upshur Street NW.

“A lot of people throughout the country grew up with Habitat through their college or church groups and when they come to D.C. they look us up.”

• • •

As a Christian ecumenical group, Habitat for Humanity welcomes volunteers from every faith. Indeed, says the Rev. Mark Farr, an Episcopal priest who is senior director of Interfaith Initiatives at the Points of Light Foundation — a private but federally supported organization headquartered on I Street NW that works to encourage volunteerism — service on Martin Luther King Day is a natural fit for faith groups.

“We believe that what’s important for faith communities is not just talk but to make a difference,” says Father Farr. “And doing work on Martin Luther King’s birthday seemed the perfect vehicle. His life and his work are so resonant for people of faith.”

The Points of Light foundation received $125,000 this year from CNCS, and expects more than 8,000 volunteers participating in 88 King Day projects in 60 cities around the nation. Locally, POL is involved directly with eight projects in the Greater Washington area, including working with senior citizens at Emmaus House in Shaw, with refugee children in Arlington, and with community residents in the Benning Terrace neighborhood of Southeast.

For many volunteers, one of the benefits of community service is that it allows people from different faiths to come together to work toward a common goal.

“It’s been a mechanism to unite people, says Father Farr, who still keeps in contact with Zoroastrians he met at last year’s Martin Luther King Day of Service.

• • •

So don’t be surprised if the people at your event aren’t just like you. But while they may not be of the same color, class, or faith, the commitment to service is the tie that binds.

On a recent Saturday, a team from Behrend Builders is quickly and efficiently painting walls and bunks in two trailers at the La Casa Men’s Emergency Shelter on Irving St. in Northwest.

Behrend Builders is a volunteer community service building and shelter repair program under the auspices of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

Present are several students from Sidwell Friends School in Northwest, a few older couples, and a couple of families. And it seems that despite differences in age, background, and religion, folks have mastered the art of passing paint buckets in a cramped space pretty quickly.

There’s a special urgency on this day, since the thermometer is expected to dip into the single digits before the night is through, and the shelter will be running at full capacity.

Founded 18 years ago by two sisters in honor of their parents, the group brings together organizations and individuals interested helping with light construction, carpentry, painting, and gardening.

Crammed into one of the tight bunks at La Casa is 12-year-old Max Cutler of Bethesda, who’s here working with his sister Sasha, his father Mike, and his mother Laura. Max is carefully painting the wall to the exacting specifications of his mother.

“I think you need to do something to help your community,” says Max between passes of the brush. “You’re not just out there by yourself.”

Community service is a family affair for the Cutlers, who have been working with Behrend Builders at least one Saturday a month. Five years ago, older son Sam started working with the project as part of his bar mitzvah-related activities. He ended up taking the whole family along.

“In Judaism one of the things we are taught is that it is important to make the world a better place and to leave it a little better off,” says Mrs. Cutler. “That’s why it’s important for our kids to do this.”

On Martin Luther King Day, teams from the D.C. Jewish Community Center will paint hallways and stairwells at Adams Elementary School in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Northwest. More than 400 are expected on that day, says Behrend Builders coordinator Aaron Devine.

“It’s our biggest day of the year,” says Mr. Devine, himself an Americorps graduate. “A whole lot of different people will be coming together. It really brings out the best in people.”

• • •

“I can only be what I ought to be when you are what you ought to be,” Martin Luther King once said. For residents of low-income neighborhoods plagued with crime, drugs, and despair, sometime the simple things are the most important.

Even so, when organizers of last year’s Martin Luther King Day of Service efforts in the Benning Terrace neighborhood, near Alabama Avenue and G Street SE, canvassed the community to see what needed to be done, the answers kind of surprised them.

“People said they needed some time for themselves, when they could do things like fix their hair and nails, get a massage, or just create something for themselves,” says Patricia Davis, an Americorps/VISTA volunteer who is project leader for the King Day celebration at East of the River Clergy Police Community Partnership.

Incorporated in 2000, the partnership is a collaboration between police officials, clergy, and community members in an effort to reduce crime and promote community collaboration.

Last year, partnership volunteers fixed up the community building. This year, thanks to help from the Points of Light Foundation, volunteers just might find themselves minding the children, while their parents attend the health fair or practice filling out job applications.

And yes, you can even get a massage on this day, or get your nails done at the Benning Terrace Community Resource Center on 46th Place SE.

“We’ll have arts and crafts, lessons about Martin Luther King and health and beauty tips,” says Miss Davis.

The day will end with a talent show and dinner that will put volunteers and residents together.

“It’s a bit about pampering, and the value you get from being pampered,” says Miss Davis. “We hope to give people a stronger sense of self and their community.”

• • •

In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, events associated with the Points of Light Foundation feature a time of reflection after the service is performed where participants can consider the value and significance of their work on a variety of levels. It is, for many, a time when the ideals put forth by Martin Luther King are made manifest.

“Martin Luther King once said, ‘the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” says Father Farr. A longtime admirer of Martin Luther King, Father Farr credits this quote with producing the change in him that made him move beyond the idea of simply being an Episcopal priest to one of service with the Points of Light Foundation.

“I suddenly realized that in that phrase is the idea that we all need to follow that stream — that somehow, we are all connected to each other and we need to help it flow toward a good end. His words gave me hope. They made me feel that we all can do something in this life.”

Volunteer opportunities

Martin Luther King Day, on Monday, has become more than just a single day to remember the civil rights leader. Since passage of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act in 1994, the day has become one of community service and interracial cooperation.

Looking for your own Martin Luther King Day of Service project? It’s still not too late to join up, say event organizers. Here’s a guide to helping. For other programs and opportunities, see www.volunteermatch.org.

• Behrend Builders: Call 202/ 777-3245 or see www.dcjcc.org/volunteer/opportunities/revitalize.php

• City Year: Call 202/776-7780 or see www.cityyear.org/sites/dc.

• The Corporation for National and Community Service: CNCS maintains a web site (www.mlkday.org) specifically devoted to the King holiday. It offers ways to find a MLK day project in your area, advice for groups mounting their own projects, and links to partner organizations like the Points of Light Foundation. For the CNCS home page, see www.nationalservice.org.

m www.dchabitat.org.

• Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County: Gaithersburg. See https://habitat.montgomery.md.us.

• Habitat for Humanity of Prince George’s County: Mount Rainier. 301/779-1912 or www.mith.umd.edu/pghabitat.

• Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia: Arlington. 703/521-9890 or www.hfhnv.org.

• The Points of Light Foundation: Also offers a King Day tool kit and links to programs. See www.pointsoflight.org.

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