Philadelphia, January 18, 2011-To honor the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., more than 75,000 people in the Philadelphia area participated in 1,200 community-improvement projects Monday. With this day of service, they tried to put his legacy of nonviolence and compassion into action.
In a noisy, crowded gym at Girard College, Abel Jose-Perez and Tom Power labored over a computer, one of 100 to be refurbished and given to students and families with no Internet access.
Neither Jose-Perez, 18, valedictorian at Kensington Business High School, nor Power, 51, chief of staff for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in Washington, had ever ventured into the interior of a computer before.
At NTIA, Power helped run a $4 billion grant program to expand broadband access, $17 million of which went to the Freedom Rings Partnership in Philadelphia, where 41 percent of residents have no connection to the Internet.
The computers, donated by businesses, law firms, universities, and individuals, had been scrubbed of memory and partially restored by experienced technicians. The volunteers Monday were charged with the final assembly. These 100 machines are the first of 5,000 that will be given away over the next two years to residents of public housing, along with training on how to use them.
“It’s so great to come to this event and see the work I’ve done at my desk come to reality,” Power said.
Guided by a sheet of complicated instructions and an experienced computer technician, he and Jose-Perez slipped a hard drive into place and fumbled to slide a thin, green metal plate into its proper slot.
Mayor Nutter, who had also volunteered for the computer project, confessed that he was afraid he might not be up to the task.
“Whatever computer I’m working on, I want to make sure someone who knows what they’re doing looks at it afterward,” Nutter said.
The project, he noted, is in keeping with the spirit of Dr. King’s ideals. “The computer is your passport not only to the future, but to knowing what’s going on around you,” he said. “This is what freedom is all about. It’s about access.”
At the French International School of Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd, students from preschool through eighth grade made soup, packed book bags, and drew valentines to benefit nearly a dozen charities and causes.
Many of the classroom supplies and pocket games were destined for Haitian children, just days after the first anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the island.
“Haiti is a place that needs a lot of help,” said Dr. Michel Francois, president of the Haitian Coalition of Philadelphia, who volunteered for the project along with daughters Michele and Corallie. The girls are both graduates of the school, which has supported orphanages and schools in Haiti for more than a decade.
In another project at the school, student Nassim Saidi, 9, stuffed snacks inside bags that will be distributed to families of critically ill children at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House near Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
King would have approved, said Saidi, of Havertown. He “stood up for people.”
In Norristown, 250 volunteers dropped in at the Police Athletic League to paint, clean out storage rooms, and sort 6,500 donated books. Three graduates of Morehouse College, King’s alma mater in Atlanta, were among those lifting boxes.
“We have to do something to celebrate his legacy and all that he meant to the world,” said Darrell Tiller, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Morehouse College Alumni Association.
In Woodbury, about 90 students tidied the high school, helped out at a food bank, and visited senior citizens at the Woodbury Mews.
Dominique Fisher, 14, gave 95-year-old Gert Holmes a manicure. When the girl finished, Holmes held up her hand, admiring the work. “Nice job,” she said. “She could be a beautician.”
Fisher grinned and explained why she had volunteered.
“I feel not enough people take the time to come and visit,” she said. “It’s actually fun.”
In another part of the room, football player Michael Paige, 18, made a greeting card for one of the seniors, 91-year-old Jane Valla.
Inside the card – green because she told him it was her favorite color – Paige wrote: “You are great.”
Helen O’Donnell, 83, received paper flowers from a student artist. She playfully tucked one behind an ear and said she was going to put the rest in a vase in her room.
The volunteers’ teacher, Kylie Pringle, said her students were thoroughly enjoying the day: “They’re talking about coming back.”
If they do, they will be truly honoring King’s legacy, said Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, now in its 16th year. “That’s absolutely part of the objective. Dr. King was a man of action 365 days of the year. For many, the King day is not just a day of volunteering, but serves as a springboard to a lifetime of service.”
And that, he said, is the point of the holiday, “because Dr. King was the embodiment of a citizen who turns concern into action.”
By Melissa Dribben, Rita Giordano & Kristen E. Holmes, Inquirer Staff Writers