Nation Marks Day Of Service Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been designated a national day of service. People talk about the ways they are reaching out, including helping to revitalize parks and communities; operating shelters for abuse victims; planting trees; and cutting homeless people's hair.
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Nation Marks Day Of Service

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Nation Marks Day Of Service

Nation Marks Day Of Service

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today's National Day of Volunteer Service goes back to 1994, when Congress passed a bill designating the King holiday as a day of citizen action. We're going to hear about several volunteer projects around the country today, and we start here in Washington, D.C., where volunteers have been sprucing up Marvin Gaye Park. Steve Coleman is a founder of Washington Parks & People and Steve, you're in Marvin Gaye Park right now. How does it look?

Mr. STEVE COLEMAN (Founder and Executive Director, Washington Parks & People): It looks a lot better than it did this morning.

BLOCK: And how so?

Mr. COLEMAN: Well, we had one of the largest turnouts we've ever had of individual volunteers just showing up because they wanted to help out. We had, in all the parks we worked on today, over 400 people come out to clean up, to open up sight lines, to pull trash out of the streams. And they worked on an African-American cemetery and a bladed, vacant lot right here in the hub of Marvin Gaye Park.

BLOCK: And why is it named for Marvin Gaye?

Mr. COLEMAN: Because he began his life of music, literally, sitting beside this stream. And so when you think about songs like "Mercy, Mercy Me" and "What's Going On," those themes are still very relevant in this sort of more forgotten end of the capital.

BLOCK: And not too long ago, I gather, Marvin Gaye Park would have looked really different from what it looks like right now.

Mr. COLEMAN: Yes, it was actually just about the worst park in the capital, and it's become the biggest community park revitalization in D.C. history. And the place where I am standing is actually the old nightclub where he had his first performance at the hub of the park.

BLOCK: When was that?

Mr. COLEMAN: Back in the late 1950s, before anyone knew who he was, and before he went to Motown. In fact, some of the people who performed with him back in the day now come back out to the park to perform in his honor.

BLOCK: What were some of the volunteers there today telling you about what made them come out?

Mr. COLEMAN: We had people from churches, from schools, The Root, which is an online African-American magazine. We had the Latin American Youth Center, a variety of service groups of all kinds, but mostly just individual people saying, I really want to help. I'm inspired. I'm fired up.

BLOCK: And is this true, there actually is a Martin Luther King connection to that park?

Mr. COLEMAN: There is, in fact, and today, folks were working on what we call the Martin Luther King Nature Sanctuary, which is the part of the park where Dr. King gave a speech back in 1961. It wasn't anything famous, just what he was doing every day of his life, exhorting people to stand up against injustice with the downtown lunch counter sit-ins. And we've named it after him as a permanent tribute.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Coleman, thanks for talking to us today.

Mr. COLEMAN: Thanks so much.

BLOCK: Steve Coleman is founder of Washington Parks & People here in Washington, D.C. And we go now to Spencer, Iowa, in the northwestern corner of the state and to Rhonda Dean, who joins us from a shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. Rhonda, tell us about your project today.

Ms. RHONDA DEAN (Executive Director, Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault): Well, today we're calling it the Spencer Spirit of Service, and it started at 10 o'clock this morning Central Time, in about 10 degrees. Individuals started bringing non-perishable food items and personal care items to Shaky Tree Coffee here in town at 5 West Second St. And then a group of individuals then ventured over to the shelter and did a couple service projects for us.

BLOCK: And you do this every year?

Ms. DEAN: Yes.

BLOCK: And how does the turnout this year compare?

Ms. DEAN: Well, it has been cold, so the turnout was a little light. But they had their overalls on, and they are ready to go.

BLOCK: What kind of work are the volunteers doing in the shelters?

Ms. DEAN: We started out in our garage, which serves two purposes: a storage area, and a place to hide vehicles if a person needs to have safety. And we just needed to straighten that up a little bit so that we were able to get more vehicles in there.

And then we have our pantry storage area that just needed to have some organization to it, and so we spent about two hours working on that. They just finished up a few minutes ago, and are looking forward in a future time to come back and paint a room for us.

BLOCK: Have they been talking to you about what brought them out today?

Ms. DEAN: Yes, a lot of them said that they're very, very motivated by President-elect Obama and his call for Americans to volunteer in their communities. One lady basically said that she feels such an honor to do this, and inspired by his words, to go ahead and serve the community.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Rhonda Dean. She's executive director of the Centers Against Abuse and Sexual Assault in Spencer, Iowa. Rhonda, thanks so much.

Ms. DEAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: And now to Lexington, Kentucky, where volunteers are delivering emergency preparedness kits to low-income housing complexes. The kits, with first-aid supplies, matches and emergency radio, were headed to senior citizens. Dwayne Edwards is the director of marketing for the Bluegrass Area chapter of the American Red Cross. Dwayne, how's the day so far?

Mr. DWAYNE EDWARDS (Marketing Director, Bluegrass Area Chapter, American Red Cross): It's been a great day so far. We've just completed passing out all the kits .

BLOCKS: And how many kits were there?

Mr. EDWARDS: There were 600 kits total that went to four different apartment complexes that are kind of tailored toward our seniors.

BLOCKS: And what's the idea behind this?

Mr .EDWARDS: It was an idea that kind of came from Katrina about making sure our community is prepared to take action to kind of help themselves, actually.

BLOCK: And the call for volunteers, is it pretty easy to find people or what?

Mr. EDWARDS: It was, and we were able to kind of do a composite where, for example, a fraternity at Transylvania University, the Delta Sigs, they went out and got the donated items, brought them to the Red Cross. Then we partnered with the Knights of Columbus. They assembled the kits. Then we used Red Cross disaster volunteers, who helped distribute the kits to the different apartment complexes.

BLOCK: Did you deliberately tie this program today, delivering these kits, to the Martin Luther King holiday?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yes, we did. It was kind of a whole thing about encouraging volunteerism in the Lexington area. This is our second year at it. Last year, we had 12 smaller projects going on in the Lexington area. This year, we had this primary project plus 25 other small projects going on in Lexington.

BLOCK: When you were delivering these kits today, did anybody say anything that stuck in your mind?

Mr. EDWARDS: The one thing that stuck in my mind was, we got to one housing complex, and there was a sorority there assisting the seniors, and another volunteer organization helping with a small project - helping the seniors organize their closets. So, what stuck in my mind were how many different groups were in the community helping people today.

BLOCK: And you really feel that?

Mr. EDWARDS: Yes.

BLOCK: Well, Dwayne Edwards, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. EDWARDS: OK, thank you.

BLOCK: Dwayne Edwards is head of marketing for the Bluegrass Area chapter of the American Red Cross in Lexington, Kentucky. And finally, we end up in Austin, Texas, where we're joined by Jonathan Lyle(ph). He's at St. Mary's Church, and he's helping out with a Day of Wellness for the Homeless, sponsored by AmeriCorps. Jonathan, what's going on where you are?

Mr. JONATHAN LYLE (Volunteer and Barber, Day of Wellness, Austin, Texas): Hello.

BLOCK: Hi.

Mr. LYLE: There's approximately - about 75 of us volunteers out here assisting. We have a foot-care clinic, we're giving out eye exams, haircuts, feeding them food. They had coffee this morning, socks, shoes, underwear, toiletries. There's even live entertainment, and we're doing a community art project as well. We're making a big quilt that everybody's putting some input into it.

BLOCK: Now, your part in all of this is that you are a barber, is that right?

Mr. LYLE: That is very much correct.

BLOCK: And you've been giving some haircuts today?

Mr. LYLE: I have.

BLOCK: How's that going?

Mr. LYLE: It's actually going pretty well. I actually stopped like in the middle of a haircut and ran over here.

BLOCK: To talk to me?

Mr. LYLE: I did.

BLOCK: We've got to let you get back to that poor person who's waiting for the rest of his hair to be cut - or hers.

Mr. LYLE: We have more than one barber so somebody else can kind of finish it up for me.

BLOCK: I see.

Mr. LYLE: But it's been going pretty well.

BLOCK: How many people do you figure have come through St. Mary's Church today?

Mr. LYLE: Right now, we're probably in midday, and I'd say there's been about 200. Wow, I was just told that we are at 400 already, and we're only halfway through the day.

BLOCK: Uh-huh(ph). And how many haircuts have you given?

Mr. LYLE: I have personally probably given out about four haircuts an hour. I have given out about 12 haircuts today.

BLOCK: That's, I would think that at the end of the day, that would be a pretty good feeling.

Mr. LYLE: Yes, I mean, it feels really good to be able to assist and help in the community, especially doing something that I love to do.

BLOCK: You've been listening in as I've talked with the folks here in Washington and Spencer, Iowa, and Lexington, Kentucky. Does it make you feel connected to something bigger going on? I realize that's a leading question.

Mr. LYLE: It really does. I was just sitting here thinking in my head, like wow - there are people doing service projects like mine or similar to mine all over the country today. It just makes me feel good to be a part of something.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Lyle, thanks for taking time out from your barbering to talk with us. We appreciate it.

Mr. LYLE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Jonathan Lyle, a barber helping out at the AmeriCorps Day of Wellness for the Homeless today in Austin, Texas. Just one of many projects going on around the country for the National Day of Service.

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