In the Nation’s Capital, Youth Heed King’s Call to Serve

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Photos by Molly McCluskey

Young volunteers help shovel gravel for a new path to the gardens at DC Urban Greens in Southeast Washington.

WASHINGTON — “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously said. “You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

To say that the National Day of Service is observed every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the nation’s capital is to downplay its significance — and the active engagement that organizations and locals bring to this community, which to many is the country’s seat of power, and for some, is simply home.

Across the District of Columbia, from small churches to wide-open spaces, people of all ages spent the day Monday giving back to their communities, whether by painting murals, feeding the hungry, registering people to vote, cleaning up the rivers and parks, or finding another way of participating in projects in every neighborhood.

At DC Urban Greens, a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing the accessibility and affordability of healthy fruits and vegetables in D.C.’s food deserts, more than 50 young people and their parents came out to get their hands dirty by tending soil, laying garden paths and building beds in one of the organization’s four urban farms.

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Christopher Fernandez, 21, served in the SCA while in high school and continues to volunteer at local events. Today he was overseeing a crew of mostly teenagers removing invasive species.

Avery Snipes, DC Urban Greens’ operations manager, beamed as she looked at the groups hauling planks, shoveling gravel, working in the garden beds and playing nearby. “This is fantastic,” she said. “We have such a small staff that having this many people show up and help out is really incredible. We could not have done all of this work by ourselves.”

Nestled behind an ice rink and next to a youth baseball academy, the DC Urban Greens’ First Generation Farm partners with their neighbors to introduce young people to farming.

“So many parents said to me today that they can’t believe how energetic their kids are here, how willing they are to pitch in and get dirty,” Snipes said. “And the kids are fascinated when they learn something new about their food, like that garlic grows in the ground.”

Along the Anacostia River, more than 600 volunteers gathered for one of the largest river clean-ups in the nation’s capital at Anacostia Park, part of the National Park Service, and one of the largest urban parks in the District. Organized by the Student Conservation Association (SCA), which places young people in service on public lands across the U.S. in internships, trail crews and other environmental education projects, those in attendance were a mix of current and past SCA volunteers, and locals who want to give to their community.

Neelah, aged 10, came to the event because her mother searched for an MLK Day of Service opportunity. She was part of one of the numerous crews spread along the lengthy waterfront, collecting trash, removing invasive species and maintaining bicycle and hiking trails.

Asked how she felt about the day, Neelah, whose mother wanted to withhold their last name, said, “I like going into the wilderness. It feels good to be outside, and to help people.” Neelah’s family has volunteered on MLK Day in the past, with varying causes and types of service. “I want to come back again,” Neelah said, “and see what it’s like when it’s all clean.” Her mother promised they would return with their bicycles in the spring.

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The Student Conservation Association organized more than 600 Monday for one of the largest river clean-ups in the nation’s capital at Anacostia Park, part of the National Park Service, and one of the largest urban parks in the District of Columbia.

A bit further down the trail, Christopher Fernandez was overseeing a crew of mostly teenagers removing invasive species. The 21-year old served in the SCA while in high school and continues to volunteer at local events. Holding a saw in one hand and a empty beer bottle he’d recovered from the trail, Fernandez said he sees several of the same people year after year at MLK Day events.

“It’s so rewarding to bring everyone together, and for so many people to say they’ll come back,” he said. “They’ll come back to do another event, but they’ll also come back here to enjoy the park throughout the year.”

Disclosure: Molly McCluskey is a former SCA volunteer who makes small annual donation to the organization’s membership drive.