Armed with paintbrushes and cleaning supplies, students took to the halls of five low-income schools Monday to serve in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The more than 500 volunteers were dispersed throughout schools in one of D.C.’s poorest areas, Ward 8, some alongside well-known officials from both the Obama administration and the District.
Volunteers at Ballou Senior High School worked to design a wall dedicated to King. When the students arrived the wall was blank and drab. When they left, quotes in bright green letters from the legendary civil rights workers instead colored the wall, dubbed Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
“Our kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds… having words and images reminding them to hang in there means a lot to keep them engaged,” Ruth Jones, director of Resource Development at Ballou Senior High School, said.
With a paintbrush dripping in brown paint in hand, University President Steven Knapp said the efforts wouldn’t just make the schools more aesthetically appealing, but would help students learn.
“It helps the whole educational experience to learn in a place that you are proud of and has some meaning,” Knapp said.
Along with Knapp, Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood also dedicated time to help spruce up the school.
“In honoring Dr. King [today] we honor every student who will show up here tomorrow,” LaHood said.
Barnes praised the members of the GW community who volunteered.
“The fact that GW students have come to this high school, that they are making it brighter, that they are putting these inspirational quotes up on all the walls, we know that has the power to change lives,” Barnes said.
Students said they felt the enthusiasm buzzing through the building from the moment they walked through the metal detectors to the moment they put the paintbrushes down.
“Being out there with a bunch of students is a great way to spend a day off, or a day on,” said Student Association President Jason Lifton, touting the Day of Service’s mantra of “a day on.”
“It’s something fun and productive to do on a day we don’t have school,” Lifton said.
GW volunteers created a wall showing different college logos including GW, the University of Maryland and Emory University, among others.
Freshman Rachel Mitchener, who helped paint a logo of the University of Maryland, said she thought the logos will have a positive impact on students.
“I think that [the college logos] will inspire the kids to look to the future,” Mitchener said.
Last year’s event caused a minor stir when some students felt their volunteering was part of a larger publicity ploy, rather than a day dedicated to service. Some students also complained there was not enough work for volunteers. Those concerns were not echoed Monday, partly because GW limited the amount of students who could participate. The University also spread volunteers across more sites this year.
Jaleel Feimster, a senior at Ballou Senior High School, expressed his gratitude toward the efforts of the volunteers.
“I really think it will be beneficial,” Feimster said. He described how the service from last year’s GW students started the process of modernizing the library.
“The library was so dirty. It didn’t have any type of [good] books. Now there are books, tables, a new computer, a [check-out] desk, paintings on the walls,” he said.
At a closing ceremony, Knapp, LaHood and Barnes, as well as D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, spoke about the value of the service work, and expressed their gratitude toward the volunteers.
“You all could give a clinic in service,” Barnes said. “Tomorrow students are going to walk into Ballou High School and see the evidence of your work.”
At the end of the day, volunteers were treated to a surprise performance by two-time Grammy nominee Eric Roberson, who sang a Day of Service version of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” followed by a performance from the nationally renowned Ballou marching band.
“Know that what you have done here today and hopefully what you will do for tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that, is changing lives,” Barnes said.
This post was updated on Jan. 18 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly said Eric Roberson was a two-time Grammy Award winner. In fact, he is a two-time Grammy Award nominee.