Laurel MLK Day

Sylvette and Troy Garnes, from Waldorf, were among the volunteers that packed personal care products into care packages at the Laurel Boys and Girls Club during a day of service sponsored by Psi Epsilon Omega. (Photo by Noah Scialom, Patuxent Publishing / January 18, 2012)

Rather than using their day off to relax, the sisters of Laurel's Psi Epsilon Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha spent theMartin Luther King Jr.holiday doing something King would have embraced: giving back to the community.

Along with community volunteers and local kids from the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, the sorority members assembled care packages and made blankets as part of a day of service in honor of the late civil rights leader.

About 100 people filled the auditorium of the Phelps Center, chatting as they worked, while video clips of King's speeches played in the background on a screen set up on the auditorium stage. Blankets stretched across several of the tables, obscuring the green and pink tablecloths echoing AKA's signature colors. Groups of about 10 volunteers surrounded the tables, cutting and tying the ends of the blankets to make tassels.

Erika Daves, a sorority member from Upper Marlboro, said she had learned to make the blankets on the spot. "I was a little skeptical at the beginning, but it's fun," Daves said.


Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

Jayden Howard, 8, worked her way down a row of tables lined with toiletries, stuffing her white plastic bag with combs, tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotion and hand sanitizer. Her brother, Justin, and friend, Julian Cavanaugh, both 14, helped fill care packages as well. All three are members of the Boys and Girls Club, where they participate in sports like baseball and track. "We came to give back to the community," Justin said.

Adrian Rousseau, the mentoring director for the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, said he has partnered with the sorority for several events since 2008. "They've given us funding but also volunteered their time," he said. "They've helped the community in so many different ways and this is just one of them."

Community service was not only the theme of the day; it's a permanent mission of AKA, according to chapter president Shawn Jackson. "Service for all mankind" is the motto of the group, which at 104 years old is the nation's first and oldest black sorority.

"Our service is a lifelong commitment," Jackson said.

The sorority's other initiatives include health programs promoting awareness of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease. Next month, the chapter will hold a Heart Café on Feb. 3 at North Laurel Community Center, which will feature jazz, dancing, wine tasting and advice from health and fitness experts.

After all the blanket tassels had been tied and the care packages had been filled, the group paused for lunch and split up into two discussion sessions: The adults stayed in the auditorium to address local concerns, while the children gathered next door to talk about bullying.

The discussions were part of a nationwide event called America's Sunday Suppers, inspired by King's commitment to open and honest dialogue on important issues, often held over a Sunday dinner.

Camaraderie is core

The Psi Epsilon Omega chapter— which was founded in 2007 and serves Laurel, Greenbelt and Bowie — also sponsors the Emerging Young Leaders program, a group for local girls in sixth to eighth grade.

Maya Lee, 13, an eighth-grader at Greenbelt Middle School, said she joined Emerging Young Leaders because most of her family members are in AKA. She likes the sense of community among the girls in the leadership program.

That camaraderie is what motivated Clara Simmons, the Laurel chapter's most tenured member, to join the sorority in 1956. Simmons, 76, didn't know anyone in Champaign, Ill., when she traveled there from her hometown of Washington to attend the University of Illinois. The first night she got there, she said she went to the dormitory where she had been assured housing — only to be denied her room because she was black.

"There I was, alone, up fromWashington, D.C., with just my trunk," Simmons recalled. The dorm managers gave her a list of families that rented rooms to black students, but they were all far from campus. For that entire first semester, Simmons had to walk seven miles to school every day.

"When I came home for Christmas, I had lost so much weight that my mother started to cry," Simmons said. "It was the first time I had ever seen her cry." Simmons' mother called a friend in Illinois to ask for help in finding a better housing arrangement, and the friend suggested the Alpha Kappa Alpha house, which was on campus and had a "house mother" who cooked meals for the girls. "That was heaven," Simmons laughed.

Although not a member when she first started living in the sorority house, Simmons soon decided to pledge. "The organization, for me, it was an educational, supportive environment," she said. "The sisters helped me dress, they helped me do my hair ... . It wasn't mean, it was more like suggestions."

Simmons also experienced several milestones in the Civil Rights movement. She lived in Alabama during the bus boycotts and participated in the March on Washington, where King gave his famous speech.

"What I remember most was the excitement, the camaraderie, the sense of unity," she said of the march. "It was one happy family, and a sense that things were going to get better … . It was a day to celebrate, a day of rejoicing."