Baltimore City

'It takes everyone working together': Civic Works volunteers help seven nonprofits across Baltimore

Although 8-year-old Livi Howland was capable of sweeping up the nails other volunteers had pried from planks of wood, what she really wanted to do was join the adults in their labor.

“That’s not as much fun,” Livi said when someone offered to find her a broom. A few minutes later, her mother, Erin Howland, supervised as she and her twin brother, Mac, carefully used hammers to coax the metal-ware from salvaged wood.


The attitude among volunteers like the Howlands, who spent their Monday completing the Baltimore nonprofit Civic Works’ day of service, was that every little bit helps.

A smaller turnout did not hamper the group of several dozen people who volunteered to partake in Civic Works’ annual day of service, which had been postponed from Martin Luther King Day due to extreme cold weather.


Typically, the urban service corps draws about 300 volunteers on Martin Luther King Day draws to more than seven partnering nonprofits around the city. Because the event was postponed to Presidents Day on Monday, the group’s numbers were slightly smaller, but no less enthusiastic, volunteer manager Gwen Kokes said.

“It might be a longer day, but I think from the energy in the room we can get a lot of work done,” Kokes said.

Some volunteers lent a hand sorting books at the Maryland Book Bank. Others made small repairs to four or five seniors’ homes. Some built compost bins for Civic Works’ Real Food Farm.

Erin Howland wanted her children to learn early the importance of contributing to others, she said while holding a plank steady for her hard-at-work children at Second Chance, a housing material salvage facility in the Carroll-Camden Industrial Area. About 40 volunteers carefully stripped the planks of wood that had been reclaimed from homes and will eventually be placed for sale at the nonprofit’s Ridgely Street warehouse.

“Because the sustainability of our business is to provide material at discounted prices, this is necessary,” Second Chance manager Nick Redfurn said of the volunteer efforts. “Sometimes we have plenty of labor, other times we need it.”

Jayna Powell, a volunteer and previously a member of Civic Works’ board for 18 years, believes the nonprofit is one of the city’s best-kept secret for its ability to harness manpower into social good. She felt momentarily dismayed the postponement had thinned the head count of volunteers this year.

“We promised 100 volunteers, and we didn’t make that, which I hate,” she said. “But we’ll do the work of 100 volunteers.”

Still, more people from corporate partners and private schools trickled into the Second Chance warehouse Monday, donning the goggles and work gloves distributed among volunteers.


At the Maryland Book Bank in Woodberry, Ellen Wallack tried to flatten one children’s book that had warped inside of a box of thousands of donated volumes. She held another baby book to her ear, listening to the faint nursery rhyme that played with the press of a button.

The mountains of chapter books, picture books and baby books are “wisdom by the pound” for people in need, Wallack said.

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Most will eventually be distributed to children and educators across Baltimore.

Another shipment of 24 large bulk shipping containers, each filled with thousands of books, was scheduled to arrive Tuesday. Book bank staffers said volunteer labor from groups like Civic Works is “imperative” to helping the nonprofit process such arrivals.

In addition to providing labor, volunteers often function as a form of word-of-mouth publicity among like-minded people in Baltimore, said Adam Martin, a programming director with Civic Works.


“Baltimore is resource-dense, but the connections are hard to make,” Martin said. “There are a lot of people who want to do the same kind of work.”

Wallack said it was great to discover that “hidden gems” like the Maryland Book Bank exist.

“It’s people helping to heal the city,” Wallack said. “It takes everyone working together.”