Students serve in Southeast to honor MLK

Thirteen volunteer organizations spent the day painting the Knox Hill Senior Center in Southeast D.C. Monday to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Office of Community Service organized the 200 students from GW and Howard University who provided service to the community in honor of the late civil rights activist.

“Our project’s message is that it’s important to remember community and give back,” sophomore participant Anissa Dehamna said. “If everyone sticks to their own circle, they’re not going to do anything great.”

Shyrea Thompson and Nikki Finch, assistant coordinators of volunteer and outreach programs, chose the Knox Hill facility because it allowed students and residents to interact.

“We wanted students to realize that D.C. is a larger community than they think,” Thompson said. “There’s a stereotype with Southeast that people shouldn’t go there. The area has challenges with schools and housing projects; there’s almost two different D.C.’s.”

Finch said their decision to launch the program stemmed from “Martin Luther King Day in the past not being a big campus event.” Last year, students painted murals at Easton High School but there was a smaller volunteer turnout.

Both Thompson and Finch worked with leaders of 13 community service organizations and held weekly meetings to plan for the day’s event.

Students gathered at J Street at 8:30 a.m.. They were randomly assigned into 15 teams, each with a team leader from a different service organization.

The students were given folders discussing the day’s activity and papers explaining King’s contributions to society.

Freshman Mariya Isayeva, representing a program she recently began at GW called Help Initiate Peace, said her club aims to “teach kids about peace in their own hands.”

Isayeva expressed her appreciation of GW’s efforts towards creating a diverse campus.

“In high school, about 99.9 percent of students were white preppies with BMWs and Land Rovers. One time (at school) we tried to have ‘Diversity Day’ but people didn’t really care and were closed minded,” she said.

While most student participants were from GW, 14 representatives volunteered from Howard University through the organization Americorps.

Howard junior David McBuffie said volunteering alongside GW students was a way to “see new faces and meet new people.”

“Growing up black in America and coming from not a wealthy community (in Chicago), an underprivileged one, gains made by Martin Luther King have helped people in my generation,” McBuffie said.

Community members have filled the 120 rooms of the Knox Hill assisted living housing development since 1941. Inhabitants range in age from 35 to 96.

“Anyone with a disability, handicapped or in need of an affordable home may stay,” property manager Evelyn Sutton said. All members pay 30 percent of their income but often social security or other federal aid programs cover their bills, Sutton said.

“It’s going to be beautified and the tenants are going to love it,” Sutton said of the Center. “I know they’re very happy to have so many students here helping. Some don’t have any family members. The painting will really brighten the place up.”

Additionally, the opportunity for students and residents to eat lunch together was a treat for everyone living there, Sutton said.

“It’s a wonderful idea that (the students are) here,” said resident Dorrice Belger.

As the day progressed, hallways from the basement to the second floor of the building smelled of fresh paint and displayed images of trees, clouds, flowers, fruit, fish and people, as students talked about creative ways to brighten up the previous off-white color. Students also listened to music and discussed the importance of volunteerism.

The Student Activities Center, the Student Association Office of Community Service, as well as the D.C. Housing Project all helped fund the day-long event.

Domino’s Pizza and Papa John’s sponsored a pizza lunch and Leonard’s Transportation offered GW a discount on transportation.

The program cost $7,000 with expenditures for buses, food and painting materials.

“There hasn’t been anything that has worked so well pulling students from all different (age) groups,” Finch said. “It’s a project where you can reflect and give back to the community, one of the greatest ways to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to give back to the community and most students seem excited to help,” she added. “There are always challenges with organizational projects but a lot of people were committed to making this day run smoothly.”

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