Samantha Brown, a sophomore in George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, had just finished listening to a panel of federal government leaders in Lisner Auditorium reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The panel launched Monday’s GW Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Leadership, and Brown was particularly touched by something that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said:
“If there is a kid in your neighborhood who is struggling, try to be gentle. We want to be able to solve all the problems of the world at once. Just solve the problems in your neighborhood, in your department, in your school or your community.”
That message resonated with Brown. “It was very eye-opening and motivational,” she said. “After today, I see MLK Jr. Day not as a day off to relax but a day to help our community.”
Then Brown joined 15 other volunteers and Fudge at Sasha Bruce Youthwork Independent Living Program in Northeast D.C., an organization that helps homeless youth secure housing, job training and other support.
They were among more than 500 volunteers who took part in GW’s 28th annual MLK Jr. Day of Service and Leadership, where volunteers served in honor of King at service projects throughout the Washington, D.C., area.
Service participants contributed about 1,500 service hours in total at 11 different sites with projects including local school cleanups, creating harm-reduction kits, removing broken glass from park trails and transcribing Freedmen’s Bureau documents. Volunteers in the Continental Ballroom of the University Student Center were joined in a project to create math, literacy and social, emotional learning materials for preschoolers by Vice President Kamala Harris, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith.
“It is a celebration of people coming together to create something bigger than what we can do alone,” said Amy Cohen executive director of the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. “A celebration of active democratic citizenship and the power of ordinary people working together.”
At Sasha Bruce, volunteers from GW arrived with paintbrushes, ready to help transform a home that will be used to house several youths as they start new chapters in their lives.
Christian Zidouemba, Student Association president and a graduate student in the School of Business, said he thinks the work Sasha Bruce does is important, and he couldn’t think of a better way to spend MLK Jr. Day.
“It’s been a privilege to serve and to show our community we are here to help,” he said. “The legacy of Martin Luther King Day is to be the best version of ourselves. It is a day to remember each one of use can make a difference by working to be a good person and dedicating our time to helping others.”
Melissa Epstein, a sophomore studying human services and social justice in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said Sasha Bruce helps meet needs of a vulnerable and underserved group.
“It is a great way to honor Dr. King’s legacy," Epstein said. “This day is about honoring a man that dedicated his life to civil rights. His impact makes other people want to serve, and I think it’s great at GW we use the day to help our community.”
At Powell Elementary School in Northwest D.C., Raquel Carson, B.A. ’08, the assistant principal, readied the building for volunteers. She assembled cart loads of supplies for them to use: glue sticks, scissors, Sharpies in a multitude of colors, construction and butcher block paper, boxes and boxes of pencils and sharpeners, gallons of yellow paint, beans, pasta and plastic bags.
"Our wellness team, counselors and social workers like to make sure our students feel safe and loved and supported,” Carson said. “So they support our students with bilingual affirmation messages and notes, positive notes. If they see a student who is feeling a little sad, they put a positive note on them. So volunteers need to cut out these positive affirmations, these pieces of paper, red in Spanish and blue in English, punch holes in them and put them on a lanyard."
Allyson Bonhaus, a senior in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, served as the GW site coordinator at Powell. She and other volunteers created badges for the school’s children with positive affirmations: “It’s OK to make mistakes.” “I’m strong and determined.” “Today is going to be my day.” “I am smart.”
At another table, Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, M.A. ’00, supervised volunteers who drew large and small hearts on posters and called out for volunteers to contribute words for “love” in the many different languages spoken by her staff and representatives from the International Visitors Leadership Program with the State Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who accompanied the GW students, including community leaders from places such as Bangladesh, Rwanda and Nigeria.
Junior Katelyn Humiston, who is on a prelaw track in CCAS, and Georgie Pierre, a graduate student from Haiti studying in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, counted out a hundred beans, colored blocks and pieces of pasta and put them in plastic bags for the kindergartners who will soon be marking their 100th day of school. The baggies are aimed to give the youngsters a chance to show they are 100 days smarter and that much sharper in counting skills.
Pierre said this is her second-year volunteering for the MLK Jr. Day of Service. “I think it is great remembering King’s heritage and insightful,” she said, “and there’s still a need for pursuing those ideals.”
Humiston grew up in a military family and has observed the many different communities she has called home and their ways “of honoring him,” she said. “It’s been interesting to see what the GW community does, and important to come out on this day and serve when you can.”
Outside of Powell Elementary, Deven Patel and Giulia DeLuca, both graduate students in the Trachtenberg School, painted portions of steps to the school’s entrance a bright yellow. “We all spend so much time in Foggy Bottom, it is easy to get stuck and not go out to the rest of the town,” Patel said. “This is an opportunity to go out and do that.”
DeLuca agreed, calling the volunteer work “an opportunity to get out and see different parts of D.C. and meet other folks.”
Back at Sasha Bruce, Lauren Harris, a sophomore in the Elliott School of International Affairs, said what she learned from the day will stick with her for a long time.
“Sasha Bruce is a lifeline for people in D.C. I think it is important for us to see what they do for people in the community,” Harris said. “The point I took away is to keep our community thriving we must do what we can. If we all do our part, we can make things better.”