A swarm of volunteers moved from mounds of mulch to beds of lifeless clay like a colony of worker bees. From 10 a.m. to lunch, volunteers toiled outside the Athens Community Council on Aging, transforming the grounds from orange dirt to a tree- and shrub-lined scene.
“It was as though a major landscape company had come in and done everything,” said Samanta Carvalho, an Athens-Clarke County employee who helped organize the more than 300 volunteers at the site.
For many, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service on Jan. 15 was a kind of giving-back, a way to thank King and his followers by continuing their legacy of working with others toward a common good.
“I’m not elderly. I probably won’t benefit directly from what we’re doing today, but that was what the spirit of the civil rights movement was all about,” said Shanaal Smothers, a volunteer and graduate student in the University of Georgia’s College of Education.
“People back then worked and gave their lives so that I can enjoy what I have today,” she added.
“I couldn’t protest then, so I’m working now.”
Other volunteers from UGA and the Athens-Clarke County community were drawn to help the Council on Aging, which provides social and institutional support for older people in the community.
Meg Cramer, a physician at the University Health Center, decided to help after learning about the event from a newspaper ad.
“My father had Alzheimer’s, and my mother brought him to a daycare center for a long time. It really helped us out,” she said as she spread mulch in front of the council’s recently built daycare facility. “I appreciate having places like this in Athens.”
During the morning, volunteers at the council planted truckloads of trees and bushes bought with a $25,000 Home Depot Foundation grant. The facility was one of seven job sites where volunteers spent the morning hauling off litter and revitalizing the grounds.
After breakfast and work, the volunteers ate lunch and attended a program that included information about King’s legacy and stories from the civil rights era.
This year, there were so many volunteers that jobs were finished early and workers had a chance to do some extra clean up around many of the sites, Carvalho said.
But don’t think it’s going away. Carvalho said that despite the large turnout, there’s no danger of volunteers running out of ways to help in the future.
“This is the South, so there’s always kudzu to clear away. And there’s always litter to haul off,” she said. “But wouldn’t that be nice?”