University of Georgia students honored Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and commitment to service on Monday’s MLK Day of Service, the only federal holiday designated for community service, as “a day on, not a day off” by working on projects throughout Athens.
“Our goal is to inspire volunteers to either take the MLK Day of Service and run with it throughout the year with more service opportunities or celebrate all of the hard work in service they have already been doing for the community,” said Julia Sherrill, director of outreach for ServeUGA, a program out of the Center for Leadership and Service in the Division of Student Affairs.
Julian Green, Community Garden Network coordinator managing the volunteers working at Mae Willie Morton Community Garden, explained how this honors MLK’s philosophy about service.
“One of the biggest things about his philosophy that gets overlooked is the idea of organizing a local community together for a purpose and getting people in the habit of organizing themselves to improve things in their own community,” he said.
“We could not be UGA students without the Athens community hosting us,” Sherrill said. “We were given the opportunity to contribute to bettering the area around us and leaving it not only better than we found it but finding ourselves bettered as well.”
There is always a need in the community, and there is always a community willing to address the need, she emphasized.
Many students worked at local sites, including Hands On Athens projects to assist low- to moderate-income homeowners with repair and maintenance of their historic homes, and the Mae Willie Morton Community Garden, located near the Columbia Brookside Senior Residences.
Hands On Athens worksites
“The goal at Hands On Athens is to keep people in their homes safely, as a vast majority of my clients are seniors or disabled,” said Jody Graichen, Hands On Athens coordinator. “It is a great way to address gentrification that comes with historic preservation, which for HOA’s historic preservation purposes includes homes built in the 1970s.
“For low-income homeowners, sometimes basic maintenance falls outside of their very fixed incomes,” she said. “The ability to have volunteers do the work achieves two things: safer, more intact homes for residents and a learning opportunity for volunteers.”
Students rebuilt a staircase and primed one of the historic homes to begin the goal of getting the house fully painted by the end of the semester, Graichen said.
“Yards, paint and clean porches are a point of pride, especially for homeowners who have lived in their homes for decades, or perhaps grew up in them,” she said.
The volunteers also cleaned overgrown foliage in a historic home’s yard on a major corner to add to the vibrancy of the streetscape.
This work provides students an opportunity to see different parts of Athens and get a glimpse of nonstudent life for long-time residents who have contributed greatly in their lifetimes to the success of Athens, Graichen said.
“The history of Athens and its residents is so multifaceted and so multitiered, and there is room for everyone to celebrate the culture and history of their space, be it their home, their streetscape or their neighborhood at large,” she said.
Mae Willie Morton Community Garden
Students also improved the streetscape of the Mae Willie Morton Community Garden on Julious Drive, which was founded to convert a location formerly used for illegal activity into a garden. The volunteers’ work building a handicap accessible planting bed will enable nearby senior residents to garden regularly, Green said.
“A lot of the plots at the garden are being used by seniors who come over there to have a space to come and plant things to get out and stay active,” he said.
He said the labor-intensive work on smaller projects closer to the ground, such as removing overgrown grass from the paths or weeding out a bed, shows the community garden is active and ready for use.
“It is not just a space where people grow things, it is a space that beautifies the community there and makes it stand out,” said Green.
Reflecting on the day, Sherrill said it was a great reminder for the student volunteers to show how excited they are to give the community of Athens the love it deserves.
“Students learned they can find pieces of themselves in the Athens community,” Sherrill said. “It’s great to see bonds strengthening between volunteers and organizations as partnerships become more sustainable and the progress in these sites becomes exponential over the years.”
The warmth that Athens felt from the hundreds of volunteers, hundreds of interactions, stories, connections was enormous, and it was a great start to the new year by honoring MLK’s legacy of service, she said.