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Volunteers set out to do unto others

Dozens of visitors descended on Aigburth Vale Senior Living Center in Towson on Saturday with wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes and other garden tools, truckloads of flowers and shrubs, and 18 tons of decorative stone. By day's end, they had planted a garden, built a pathway, installed benches and cleaned much of the exterior of a century-old building. Then they gathered with the seniors for a communal barbecue.

The refurbishing project, one of about 50 in Baltimore County and across the state, was part of Servefest, a faith-based initiative that urges congregations to step outside the walls of their churches and serve their communities.

"I could have been doing a lot of other things on a sunny Saturday, but this one thing is making many lives better and is very gratifying," said George Thoupos. "I know I will have plenty of other beautiful Saturdays. I can give this one to help others."

Sarah Leong Oliver, spokeswoman for Servefest, said, "United church groups are showing the love of Christ to others through tangible means."

Kitty Miller, manning the sign-in table at the entrance to Aigburth Vale, passed out T-shirts with the Servefest logo and told the steady stream of volunteers, "Just start digging in."

Pam Bryden would ordinarily have spent the sunny day tending her own garden. But not today. "In this economy," she said, "people can't always contribute financially like they did in the past. But we can all give our time and our labor to serve others."

Instead of digging into the earth, Jeff and Candace Marshall and their two children tackled grime removal. They washed windows floor-to-ceiling and scrubbed the wraparound porch.

"I never could get the kids to wash windows at home, but here, I guess, they can see the fruits of their labors," said Candace Marshall.

Lisa Ripich and her three children might have traveled the farthest. After driving to Baltimore from Skaneateles, N.Y., to visit family members who were among the volunteers, they added their own labor to the job.

"This is such a beautiful thing that all these people are doing," she said. "Wouldn't it be great if churches everywhere got together to help out?"

Said Pat Burchard, 75, a resident of the 70-unit center, "This means a lot to us. Many seniors here can't get this work done, and we have no one to do all this work for us."

Burchard had placed planters filled with colorful flowers on her windowsills, but said landscaping would really enhance the grounds. At the entrance to the building's lower level, volunteers dug out a wide patio space and surrounded it with azaleas and rhododendrons.

Project manager Matt Kwiatkowski, who lives nearby, involved his wife, Wendy, and their four young children, none more so than 3-year-old Maggie. To make way for the rock garden, the energetic tyke doggedly dug up grass then carried countless hefty clumps to wheelbarrows. When asked what she was doing, Maggie didn't skip a beat: "Working!"

Her family became acquainted with Aigburth residents while visiting a former neighbor who moved there. They are now frequent visitors, offer camaraderie, helping hands and, if asked, scripture readings.

"We were overwhelmed with the loneliness some of these residents experience and wanted to spend time here," Matt Kwiatkowski said.

Many Aigburth residents had asked for a clear view and comfortable seats to watch the outdoor activities, especially baseball games, at Towson High School, their nearest neighbor. Mimi Kelly, Aigburth's manager, suggested making improvements to landscaped area up a grassy incline, with room for walkers and wheelchairs.

"The residents all love to sit outside and watch the kids' games," said Kelly. "These amazing volunteers are making it easier for residents to do that."

Before he started digging, Doug Miller shot photos that he planned to display at Hunt Valley Church. "This really is a way to put feet to what we believe," he said.

Many of the volunteers readily admitted Servefest kept them from other less labor-intensive springtime activities. They dug deep, sweated profusely and did not complain.

"Why not organize a good family project and help these seniors?" asked Neal Davidson, who with his wife and two teenage children built a rock garden.

"There really is no reason not to do this," said his 17-year-old son, Tim.

Ginny Davidson, a 14-year-old freshman at Towson High, said she would return to the Aigburth Vale community after classes Monday.

"It will be great to see how this all looks and to know I was part of it," she said.

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