“Clean and Green” day has taken place in Chicago for more than 20 years; this is the first time neighborhood organizations have collaborated on “Greater Englewood Unity Day.” Inspiration for the unity day came from a community meeting with Illinois senator Mattie Hunter where community organizations expressed a desire to collaborate, volunteers said.
Like its Chicago Public Schools counterparts, Daniel S. Wenworth Elementary School cancelled classes in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. However, its halls were still bustling with volunteers, paint and music Monday.
According to recruitment coordinator Julian Castro, more than 500 volunteers painted the interiors of three elementary schools in the Englewood community, including D.S. Wentworth, as part of an annual MLK day of service hosted by City Year. The nationwide program for recent college graduates works with local schools throughout the year.
About 200 volunteers took over the halls of D.S. Wentworth, 6950 S. Sangamon St., covering halls and classrooms with murals and colors selected by the school’s principal. The paintbrush-armed coalition recalled the diversity and acceptance Martin Luther King championed during the civil rights movement. The group comprised not only the Chicago White Sox Volunteer Corps and Bank of America, but also families and individuals from Englewood and beyond, City Year program director Jewan Garner said.
“The diversity and the different organizations that we have coming together might not come together on a typical basis, but they have common ground on this day of service to do something for Englewood,” said Garner, who grew up in the neighborhood prior to working for City Year for the past 10 years.
The stories of volunteers varied like the bright colors emerging on the elementary school’s walls. A Highland Park synagogue offered its congregants to the project and an artist from Champaign joined her daughter, a City Year corps member, on the second floor of the building.
Trayvond Mallett, a sophomore at nearby Paul Robeson High School, said the MLK holiday represented a chance to give back to his home community. An Englewood resident, Mallett attended D.S. Wentworth as a child and said his niece is currently enrolled.
“It feels good,” he said, concentrating on painting a detailed reproduction of a comic book cover to appear in the school library. “They can look up to what I did and look at the pictures and paintings and see how much effort I put into it.”
Two floors below, Betty Harrell tried to avoid dripping paint while applying the gold and brown colors of the D.S. Wentworth Warriors’ mascot to a stairwell. Harrell said she learned about the volunteer day through her employer, Bank of America, and had never participated in community service before.
“Obama was the one who motivated me to do the service thing,” she said. “You don’t have to be Martin Luther King but it’s nice to give back and once you start it becomes an obsession.”
The Chicago Public Schools website ranks D.S. Wentworth among the lowest-performing schools in the city in terms of test scores, scoring below average in math reading and science on 2010 subject tests. Of the 351 students from grades preschool to eighth grade, 95 percent come from low income families.
Volunteers said they hoped their work would contribute to a better learning atmosphere and allow students to take pride in their school. In addition to the mascot and school motto – Be Productive, Be Present, Be Powerful, Be Positive – City Year volunteers drew west African symbols in the hallways at the request of principal Dina Everage.
It was those symbols that inspired curiosity and wonder among the elementary school students returning from their three-day weekend Tuesday morning, D.S. Wentworth engineer Vince Zagotta said.
“The kids and teachers really liked it,” he said. “It made a big difference to the school and it meant a lot to me and the staff here that they came and did it.”