Martin Luther King Junior Day is often referred to as a day of service. But what does service really mean? On Monday, January 21, I learned the true definition of this word as I joined some of my fellow STAC members and participated in Operation Oliver, a Sixth Branch project that focuses on rebuilding the Oliver neighborhood of Baltimore City.
I looked around and saw numerous volunteers of all different backgrounds. As we stood there in the 30-degree cloudy weather, I couldn’t help but wonder what to expect.
We quickly met the members of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, all in high school just like us. Soon enough, we all gathered to listen to the leaders of the project talk for the most moving seven minutes of my life. Not only do these people run the project, but some of them actually moved into this neighborhood. They quoted MLK’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Every person standing there became mesmerized by this statement. I glanced around and could easily see that it became nearly impossible to do anything but listen.
The leaders explained the different roles and instructed volunteers on how to safely clean up needles. That’s when I realized how much of a change the neighborhood needed.
We were split into groups and assigned different areas of the neighborhood. Some people cleaned trash; others painted, planted and beyond. Our job was to shovel for bricks, rocks and glass so we could make an even and safe surface for the children who play football on this patch of land. The rocks kept piling up, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow.
Looking up, I witnessed a true transformation. Just three hours before, the distraught neighborhood seemed to have no hope. The walls now popped with bright colors, the trash slowly disappeared, and in just two hours almost an entire dumpster filled. Kids who played football on this uneven patch of land would now have somewhere to play. We moved to help spread soil on planted trees. The once rough area of dirt was hardly recognizable. It felt like the clouds had disappeared—the sun was brightly shining.
In those few hours, the neighborhood transformed from a place of distress to a genuinely welcoming and comforting area. I was amazed that hundreds of volunteers willingly spent their day off outside in the cold and came together.
For lunch, we sat in a circle with the teens from the Elijah Cummings Youth Program and went around and talked about the day. Hearing each person’s perspective absolutely moved me. I felt a strong personal connection with the same people I had met just hours before.
The whole project would have thrilled Dr. King. The project couldn’t have been a more perfect metaphor of the progress of society. I am so grateful that now I can sit and talk to people of any race or ethnicity and we can all work together to make change. I am appreciative that we had this time to celebrate Dr. King. Service is not about one person. It’s about everyone working together as a community.
Kara Seidel, a junior at Pikesville High School, is a participant in Students Taking Action for Change (STAC), sponsored by Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC) and THE ASSOCIATED.
For more information about STAC and JVC’s Teen Leadership and Volunteer Programs, contact Reneé Goldfarb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-369-9338.