More than just a paint job

November 02, 1997|By Elise Armacost

"AMAZING THE difference a little paint and plaster can make,'' I have been heard to say, after a daub of lipstick and a swipe of blush. No, Estee Lauder cannot compensate for deficiencies of the soul. But the restorative power of a little fix-up should not be underestimated. The effects are not merely skin-deep.

Pitching in

It's a point worth remembering when gauging the worth of community volunteer efforts -- pitch-in-and-clean-up affairs such as the three-day event Baltimore County sponsored two weekends ago. Thousands of countians gave up their free time to paint schools, spruce up senior centers, clean up parks and streams, plant trees, scrub graffiti and other assorted good deeds. And had a good time, too.

Such initiatives are not new; Harford County government has organized a volunteer day on the last Saturday in October for nine years, Annapolis has its ''Greenscape'' cleanup each spring, and the non-profit group Hands On Baltimore sponsors a similar effort in the city in May. But there does seem to be a new focus on this kind of event since last spring's star-studded volunteer extravaganza in Philadelphia, the President's Summit for America's Future.

The summit itself provoked as much cynicism as hope. Images (( of wealthy, powerful people painting poor people's houses can appear disingenuous. True volunteerism, critics noted, occurs every day, with private individuals quietly giving their time and energy. Conservatives especially railed against the superficiality of it all. What's the good of people cleaning graffiti from their walls if they don't clean up their messed-up lives?

There's something to that, I guess, though it's a little like saying I shouldn't bother pressing my clothes and putting on makeup until I get my finances in order.

Whatever the summit's shortcomings, it is unfair to superimpose them on local efforts, public or private, that drew inspiration from Philadelphia. Baltimore County's ''Pitch in for Progress'' weekend was conceived in response to the summit. Only an irredeemable cynic could find something bad to say about it.

Dutch's turn

One naysayer suggested the whole thing was designed by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to enhance his image, but even if that were true, so what? The participants did not view this as a political happening.

The 46 parents, 46 teachers and 90 students who volunteered at Middle River Middle School and the local businesses that donated supplies and goodies thought only of their school. They picked up around the campus. They painted trim and fire doors, a job that wouldn't have gotten done for a long time if left to school maintenance crews; there are too many higher priorities.

Principal David Lloyd has stapled snapshots from that day on bulletin boards in the front foyer. The pictures show happy kids, arms slung around one another's shoulders, and parents and teachers who had never met each other brandishing sodas and paintbrushes. A sixth-grader who helped told me how good it felt coming to school the next Monday.

Butts out

They were just cosmetic changes, and who knows for sure whether they will help a community that has long felt down on its luck know pride and self-respect in the long run? David Lloyd is hopeful: ''Kids are saying, 'I painted that door,' and 'My grandparent painted that trim.' ''

A few miles away, at the aging Essex library branch, outreach librarian Janet Sanford peers out at two new, neatly mulched beds of azaleas, rhododendrons and ornamental grasses flanking the walkway. Nothing elaborate, but what a difference from the lone shrub and strewn trash that was there before Pitch In for Progress. John Sandkuhler, resident services coordinator for the nearby Kingsley Park Apartments and a master gardener, helped 20 volunteers -- including local Girl Scouts and one

13-year-old known for causing trouble in the library -- design and build them.

A little modest landscaping made at least a little difference. Patrons exclaimed over the change. ''The [cigarette] butt population has been significantly reduced,'' Ms. Sanford notes, smiling. And something strange happened to that 13-year-old. She's not causing much trouble these days. When she comes to the library now, she carries the little key chain she received as a memento of her day as a volunteer.

I'm not foolish enough to believe one communal, altruistic day can cure all manner of social or spiritual ills. And we ask for disaster if we start depending on volunteers to provide basic public services. We need the reliability and accountability of government to build bridges, stock classrooms, get rid of trash.

But the little chores -- the painting, the polishing, the looking after our neighbors -- reap unexpected rewards when we do them ourselves.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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