A call to action

Obama stirs thousands to public service

today, he'll rouse a nation

Obama's Inaugural

January 20, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown and Mary Gail Hare | Matthew Hay Brown and Mary Gail Hare and,matthew.brown@baltsun.com and mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

As an African-American business owner, Joe Weaver has observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day each of the past 14 years by working. When people asked why Global Interactive Design was open on the federal holiday, he would explain: "This is the dream."

But yesterday, Weaver answered the call of President-elect Barack Obama, shutting down the Owings Mills marketing business and bringing a team of employees and family members to Our Daily Bread to help feed a hot lunch to the poor and homeless.

"It's still the dream," said Weaver, 41, between serving meals at the Baltimore soup kitchen run by Catholic Charities. "We're just exercising it in a different way."

In Maryland and across the nation, volunteers donated time and energy to thousands of projects on the eve of Obama's inauguration. The president-elect, who had called on Americans to honor King by serving in their communities, started his day with a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to meet with veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Later, he picked up a paint roller to apply a fresh coat of blue to the walls at Sasha Bruce House, a shelter for homeless teens in Washington, and joined his wife, Michelle, at Calvin Coolidge High School to greet 300 people who were writing letters to military service members and performing other activities.

"It's not a day just to pause and reflect - it's a day to act," Obama said. "I ask the American people to turn today's efforts into an ongoing commitment to enriching the lives of others in their communities, their cities and their country."

That's what Terry Patton is hoping for. The Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School principal spent her day off supervising three shifts of volunteers cleaning and painting classrooms and lavatories in the brick building on West Lexington Street.

"This means partnerships," said Patton, gesturing to the parents and others awaiting assignments. "Not only for today, but to continue into the future. As we're renewing America, we're renewing our school."

Melissa Smith said she ordinarily spends the King holiday enjoying the time off. This year, she went looking for an opportunity to serve - a search that took her to a second-floor bathroom at Franklin Square in need of a new coat of paint.

"I'm 27, and this was the first election I voted," said Smith, a community living coordinator at Goucher College. "It's the first time there was someone I wanted to vote for. I think he's asking us all to be better people. Not for ourselves, but for each other."

In the parking lot of New Psalmist Baptist Church in Edmondson Village, more than 200 volunteers unloaded cartons containing pasta, peanut butter and other staples from a tractor trailer with "Feed the Children" printed on its side. The workers combined the packages with bagfuls of books and videos for children and gave them to about 400 needy families.

"I have not been able to work in two months and am falling into arrears on all my bills," Thelma Cooper said as volunteers carried groceries to her car. "This food is a real blessing."

Maurice Wagner, an associate minister at the church on Old Frederick Road, wore a cap that said "Obama" and a shirt that read "One voice can change the world."

"We are already seeing that today," he said. "There are a lot of volunteers here today who are not part of the congregation, giving us hours just to help out."

Former Baltimorean Markiesha Wilson flew back from her job on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to attend some inaugural festivities - and to help out at her home church.

"It is incredibly important that you help people who are far more into this recession than you are," she said. "This call to volunteer is what this country needs. Every one of us can do something for somebody else."

Bishop Walter S. Thomas Sr., pastor of the 7,000-member church, has seen generosity before. But he said Obama "has unleashed a spirit of help that exists all over this country. It has just been untapped for a long time."

The Corporation for Community and National Service, charged by Congress with encouraging voluntarism on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has seen participation grow in each of the past 15 years. With Obama's call, promoted on the Presidential Inauguration Committee and USA Service Web sites, the number of events across the country has more than doubled, from a record 5,000 in 2008 - when 500,000 Americans served - to more than 12,000 events scheduled yesterday.

Obama, whose campaign made extensive use of the Internet to rally supporters and collect donations, called it "an amazing tool" for organizing.

"But we don't just want to use it for winning elections; we want to use it for rebuilding America."

At Our Daily Bread, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin donned a green apron and spent half an hour on the lunch line, slinging green beans onto plates. The Maryland Democrat said Obama's call to service was consistent with his presidential campaign.

"He wants people to get engaged in the system, get engaged in policymaking, get engaged in holding us accountable, get engaged in trying to figure out what should be done right, get engaged in helping their community," Cardin said. "And that means not only contributing money, but contributing your time."

Cardin said he was gaining from the experience.

"This is not only providing help, but it sensitizes all of us to the problems that are out there," he said. "These people are struggling every day. And by being here, we see it. And it means we're more likely to do something about it."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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