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Thousands volunteer to honor Dr. Martin Luther King at local schools, Girard College

In the centennial year for the 19th Amendment, the 25th annual day of service focused on women and women's issues.

Volunteers at Houston Elementary worked on the stairs on Dr. Martin Luther King Day. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A diverse coalition of volunteers from across Philadelphia participated in Monday’s 25th Martin Luther King Day of Service, tackling 1,800 projects in local schools and other community locations.

The largest Martin Luther King Day event in the nation was held at Girard College, the college preparatory school where King himself addressed protesters fighting for integration of the school in 1965.

According to the event’s website, more than 5,000 volunteers gathered to work on more than 145 projects at the civic engagement expo held in the campus armory, in addition to running a jobs and health fair on the floor below.

Around the city, the service projects included many at public schools, where volunteers painted, raked leaves, and organized libraries.

Houston Elementary staff and families worked together with neighbors and community groups, including the Unitarian Society of Germantown and New Covenant Church of Philadelphia, to beautify the school building and grounds. (Photo: Courtesy of Houston teacher Virginia Schmehl)

Standing behind an information table at the entrance to the civic engagement expo, Dana Stancil greeted volunteers, directed them to different organizations, and passed out programming. She registered with the nonprofit organization Global Citizen to volunteer with members of her congregation at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.

“I landed here so I could smile at everyone walking in the door,” Stancil said.

Gesturing towards the kids’ carnival taking place on the other side of the brightly lit gymnasium, she added, “There’s Girl Scout cookies back there, so I’m glad I’m up here.”

She estimated that she had already seen at least a thousand volunteers enter the event in her first hour. The pamphlet she handed to each of them has the tagline, “Celebrating black women in the suffrage movement,” with pictures of civil rights leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Coretta Scott King on the cover with a list of participating employers and organizations inside.

Because 2020 marks 100 years since women got the vote through the 19th Amendment, the themes of suffrage and the women’s involvement were prevalent among the participating organizations. Civic awareness groups such as Philly Counts were clustered in the front to remind people to participate in the census and vote in the elections.

“Martin Luther King fought for voting rights and civil rights, so what better way to honor him than making sure all citizens have access to the ballot box,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar.

Volunteers were working to honor King’s commitment to service with an abundance of projects to benefit local community centers and schools. Consistent with this year’s theme, many of the organizations were female-run and benefited women and girls.

Volunteers fill the main hall in Girard College. (Photo: Lynn Oseguera)

Project C.L.A.S.S.Y, a nonprofit that matches young girls in Philadelphia-area schools with college-age women to provide mentorship and confidence-building, had a station set up where volunteers could make fleece blankets for local homeless shelters and craft kits for Mastery Smedley Elementary students.

Satira Holiday, an elementary school teacher volunteering with the project, said the group made 800 craft kits that day, with volunteers still making blankets. She added, “Service is one of our pillars.”

Across the room, Frances Conwell, the head facilitator of Sisters Interacting Through Stitches, led another project benefiting local students. In partnership with the city Department of Human Services’ Girls Track program, their table worked to stuff personal period purses to donate to recreation centers, libraries, and Wynnefield area schools.

The group regularly meets at the Wynnefield Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia to crochet small pouches that can then be filled with up to four sanitary pads. Today, 25 students from Girls Track joined the group to add buttons and stuff the purses.

“I wanted to see if we could get all of our pouches stuffed today, and we did it!” Conwell said, estimating that they completed 150 pouches. “As a life coach, I’m very proud of my girls.”

One of the students who volunteered to stuff the pouches was Aniyah Gardner, a senior at Mastery Charter. She said she enjoys the DHS Girls Track program because “It exposes you to lots of opportunities like college tours and places to volunteer.”

She said she appreciated the work she was able to do today because many schools are strict about allowing bags to be taken into bathrooms. The pocket-sized pouches, which school nurses can distribute, allow for a discreet system of obtaining and carrying free sanitary products.

In addition to local high school students like Gardner, entire families came to the event to volunteer. Amber Stowe, an employee at Accolade, brought her two daughters, her son, and a nephew with her. As the family took a lunch break, Stowe commented that this was their first year attending the event, but “I plan on coming back. I like it.”

Stowe’s daughter Mackenzie, 8, and nephew Memelik, 9, who attend West Philadelphia Achievement Charter, also enjoyed the event. Memelik said his favorite activity was sewing a squeaker into a toy for rescue dogs with Glad Dogs Nation, and Mackenzie added that she was excited all week for the event, saying, “I was thinking about it a lot when in school.”

Reflecting on what she learned today, Mackenzie said: “Helping people isn’t bad” and “Everyone should have equal rights.”

Stowe seemed pleased that the children were getting what she had hoped from the event. “I decided to bring them today so they could learn selflessness. They tend to fight at home, so I figured they could come here to see strangers working together, helping, and sharing.”

Volunteers at Mitchell Elementary painted the gym and cleaned years of clutter from the school’s majestic 100-year-old auditorium. (Photo: Courtesy of Mitchell Elementary)

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