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'That's inspiring': Students, Baltimore community celebrate MLK's legacy with day of service

Thirteen-year-old Alice Riley painstakingly painted the names of a series of soups around the rim of a ceramic bowl: chicken noodle, butternut squash, ramen.

In larger letters on the exterior she painted the question, “More soup?” Inside the bowl, at the very bottom, was the reply, “Yes, please.”

What a great world it would be, Alice thinks, if enough soup was available for everyone in the world to have as much as they wanted.

“We live in a city with lots of need,” said the eighth-grade student at Friends School of Baltimore. “It’s important to remember that.”

Alice and her parents, Reed and Fern Riley, were participating in the school’s 16th annual service day held on the weekend commemorating the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Once the dishes have been fired, they’ll be a key feature of St. Vincent DePaul Baltimore’s signature fundraising event “Empty Bowls,” to be held in late March.

The Rileys are among what the Corporation for National and Community Service has estimated are hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents for whom the third Monday in January increasingly is becoming not just a day off from work or school, but a day to pitch in to make the world a better place.

The holiday’s status as a day of service received its most visible boost from former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. Starting in 2009, the couple publicly participated in a series of high-profile volunteer projects with their daughters, Malia and Sasha.

On Monday, Obama publicly called on Americans to follow Dr. King’s example by serving their less privileged neighbors. Obama tweeted: “I’ve always drawn inspiration from what Dr. King called life’s most persistent and urgent question: ‘What are you doing for others?’ Let’s honor his legacy by standing up for what is right in our communities and taking steps to make a positive impact on the world.”

More than a dozen Baltimore area churches and synagogues, schools and grassroots organizations planned dozens of projects for this weekend that ranged from maintaining community gardens to cleaning up trash from vacant lots and highways, to tutoring students, to creating crafts with young hospital patients. Some outdoor activities were postponed because of the brutal cold but were rescheduled for either later this week once temperatures warm up, or for Presidents’ Day

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, issued a statement Monday urging the nation’s citizens to volunteer on an initiative dear to his heart — expanded voting rights.

“We find ourselves again asking for the ballot -- just as Dr. King had done in his 1957 speech when he said: ‘Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.’” Cummings wrote.

“Today, we must carry Dr. King’s vision forward and fight to expand voting rights. And on this day of remembrance and celebration, I urge all my fellow Americans to carry Dr. King’s dream in their hearts and work towards building a more fair, equal, and just society.”

For its part in society-building, Friends school sponsored 16 activities that took place on their Wyndhurst campus and throughout the city and that harnessed the volunteer efforts of 430 students, alumni and their family members.

The slate of activities was organized by Jennifer Smith and Laurie Haas of the Friends School Parents Association. Smith pointed out that the Quaker school held its inaugural day of service in conjunction with King’s birthday in 2004 — or five years before the Obamas popularized the notion of a holiday dedicated to volunteer efforts.

“Our responsibility to our community is something we talk about as a family all the time,” Smith said.

“I have three sons, and I don’t want them to get stuck in a bubble of entitlement created by growing up in north Baltimore. I want them to understand how fortunate they are. I don’t just want them to get a good education. I want them to get a moral grounding and a framework they can use to go out in life and make a difference.”

But no one ever said that getting a moral framework can’t also be rewarding and even fun.

Just ask Johan Shattuck, 14, who was among the Friends volunteers serving chicken and rice casseroles to 425 men, women and children at the downtown soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread.

Johan, his curls crammed beneath a hair net, became involved in an animated conversation with one man about the controversial call during Sunday’s National Football Conference championship game that helped send the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl instead of the New Orleans Saints.

Despite the man’s despair at the injustice done to the Saints, Johan was struck by how unfailingly cheerful and polite the soup kitchen’s customers were, how little they seemed to resent his relative advantages.

“The energy in the room was so positive,” Johan said. “Everyone was really nice to me. They were all in good moods despite their situations. That’s inspiring.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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