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500 holiday workers from Shell Oil and Motiva Enterprises active in Houston Food Bank Project

Honoring MLK by helping out

Volunteers heed Obama’s call in Houston a day before nation pays tribute to civil rights icon

Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

Jan. 17, 2009, 11:32PM

Armed only with brushes, gallons of yellow enamel and an abundance of goodwill, a work crew of New York college students last week painted its way into the hearts of South Park neighborhood residents. Motorists, startled by the sight of the volunteers spiffing up the curbs on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, stopped in the street to give a big thumbs-up. Others offered drinks and snacks or just paused to chat.

Locals are still marveling at the students’ generosity and the glistening streetscape they left behind.

But those students — most of the 30 were from Yeshiva University — were just a prelude to Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday activities.

Propelled by President-elect Barack Obama’s call for the slain civil rights leader’s holiday to be marked by public service, thousands of volunteers are poised to sweep over the city in a clean-up, paint-up, fix-up extravaganza.

Among them are about 150 volunteers from Hope Worldwide, an international humanitarian organization, and 500 holiday workers from Shell Oil Co. and its Motiva Enterprises subsidiary who will sort and pack groceries at Houston Food Bank, tutor a children’s literacy program and plant dozens of trees.

At Independence Heights Community Health Center, volunteer artists will emblazon a wall with a patriotic mural featuring King and Obama against a backdrop of a billowing American flag. Trinity East United Methodist Church, 2418 McGowen, will sponsor a community cleanup, and volunteers at the Eastwood Bicycle Center, 4411 Dallas, will recondition bikes for needy youth.

On the calendar since 1986, the MLK holiday became a national day of community service at the behest of Coretta Scott King in 1994.

“We are thrilled that the president-elect is making volunteerism a centerpiece of his inauguration,” said Sandy Scott, spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency created to promote volunteer efforts. “He’s given a huge stimulus to this effort. Last year we had 5,000 projects nationwide, engaging 500,000 volunteers. This year the numbers are off the chart.”

Days before the holiday, Scott said, the national project total topped 7,500.

In Houston, MLK Day volunteerism got off to an early start as Yeshiva students, under the direction of Houston artist Akua Fayette, tackled the gritty task of beautifying curbs on MLK Boulevard.

“Those were just the nicest bunch of kids I’ve been around,” Fayette said. “They were just very happy, very pleasant out there painting those curbs. In so many spots there were no curbs to paint. We’ve got work to do.”

The students began their stint as winter break volunteers in Houston, then moved on to Galveston, where they assisted in hurricane recovery work, and Dallas, where they worked with a homeless shelter.

Such activities, said Yeshiva’s Marc Spear, offer “an extra level of education that you can’t get in the classroom. … It’s transformative. The students come from all different places. It’s eye-opening for a lot of them.”

Plenty of good feelings

Said Aryeh Stock, 19, a Yeshiva sophomore, “We weren’t given a whole lot of information on what to expect. We were told we were to help a town by painting curbs. We ended up with an educational and fun experience. We really got to interact with the local community. I think it’s important to understand that some small actions, painting a curb yellow, has a big impact emotionally for oneself and the community around you.”

On Monday, hundreds of volunteers are expected to descend on the Houston Food Bank’s north side warehouse, where they will sort and pack foodstuffs. Food bank spokeswoman Betsy Ballard said the agency provides food assistance for 80,000 people in Harris and 17 area counties.

“We literally cannot function without volunteers,” she said. Volunteers may also assist in the distribution of 2,700 frozen turkeys in the Houston area, she said.

Most of those volunteers will come from Shell, Motiva and Hope Worldwide.

“We are glad to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr and what he stood for — equality, justice, peace and hope,” said Hasting Stewart, Shell’s social investment manager.

Volunteer artists at the Independence Heights Community Health Center, 4040 Yale, began preparing the wall for painting this weekend, said Brad Pritchett, lead organizer for Change Corps, a group of Obama campaigners who are hosting the event.

Pritchett said plans called for scouring the wall of old paint, priming it and sketching out the mural’s design.

“It’s basically a large paint by numbers project,” he said. “It’ll be easier for everyone knowing what they’re doing and where they’re doing it.”

Pritchett said organizers hope to complete the 8-by-14-foot mural Monday. Children will be invited to work on a separate smaller mural at the building’s front. That project will entail painting small freestyle panels for later assembly. Still younger children will be allowed to paint individual pictures to take home or for display at the health center.

Volunteers are asked to donate two cans of food or other nonperishable food items for distribution to Independence Heights-area food pantries.

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