Pittsburghers do their part for National Day of Service

Various events here draw thousands of volunteers

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While children colored pictures of the Statue of Liberty, bald eagles and helicopters, adults at tables in the basement of the Homewood AME Zion Church wrote letters to be placed in care packages for members of the U.S. military overseas.

It was one of the busiest sites of about 20 in the Pittsburgh area on Saturday when thousands of people volunteered hours on projects in recognition of the National Day of Service. It coincides annually with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and, this year, the inauguration of President Barack Obama on Monday.

Several events are scheduled next week as well, from service to the elderly and victims of domestic violence to home building and repairs for veterans and the needy. Mr. Obama initiated the annual service day during festivities surrounding his first inauguration in 2009.

Events this year were organized in every state and the District of Columbia, where Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined 500 volunteers to make over Burrville Elementary School. One of the president's tasks was to apply stain to a five-tier shelf.

"He did a fine job," Mrs. Obama quipped when he was through.

A former field organizer for Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, Shirley Taylor of Homewood was tapped to organize a local event and she organized three -- the care package collection at the church, where she is a missionary; a door-to-door educational literature drop to inform women on ways to end domestic violence, based at the Kingsley Center in Larimer; and a door-to-door educational literature drop on fire prevention and safety, based at the Tazza D'Oro coffeehouse in Highland Park. That was part of a larger effort the American Red Cross coordinated nationwide and at which former first daughter Chelsea Clinton volunteered in Washington, D.C.

Thousands swarmed the national mall to volunteer on the spot for seven projects.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said her family was on food stamps when she was a teenager and that she sometimes didn't have enough to eat. She asked the crowd to volunteer at food pantries and contribute non-perishables to food drives.

"We have a responsibility to our communities to make a difference," she said.

Other administration officials joined the effort.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who grew up in Pittsburgh, volunteered with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice at Trinity Washington University's food bank. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius headed to a soup kitchen, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood participated in a service project at Rock Creek Conservancy, and housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan headed to New York to clean up Hurricane Sandy debris on Jones Beach.

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, said his father would have been honored to see all the community service performed on his birthday weekend. "There is no better way to honor my father's legacy," he said, adding that Mr. Obama believes "not just in a day of service or a week of service or a month of service, but a lifetime of service."

Both Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and mayoral candidate and city Councilman Bill Peduto joined the crowd in Homewood to write letters for soldiers' care packages.

"Dear Friend," Mr. Peduto's third letter began, "It's a hockey day in Pittsburgh," referring to the late start of the National Hockey League's season following a lockout.

He said he hoped a soldier from Pittsburgh might be cheered by it. "I did this in 1991 when my brother served in the first Gulf War," he said.

Mr. Ravenstahl sat at a table with children who were coloring pictures, one of them his 4-year-old son, Cooper, who wore a Penguins jersey.

"I did this last year," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I do personalize my letter. They need to know that people in public office appreciate what they're doing. I think it means a lot."

Operation Gratitude is the national organization behind the care packages to soldiers. The nonprofit sends 100,000 packages to service personnel overseas each year. For safety and security, the packages are assembled at the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys, Calif.

"I talked to my son in Korea, and he and his buddies gave me a list of things they need," said Ms. Taylor, the coordinator of local events. "Then I talked to mothers who send care packages of things their kids [in the service] keep asking for. Operation Gratitude also gives you ideas.

"There are things our soldiers miss, like being able to go to the kitchen for a cookie," she said. "We send travel-sized things they can put in their pockets, like Chapstick."

Among the boxes of items to be distributed were packaged crackers, candy, non-perishable food, zip-close bags, hand sanitizers and other toiletries.

Among the 100 people who volunteered at the Homewood church, about 30 penned letters.

"I'm thanking them for their service because I get to sit here and be free," said Alex Matthews, a Homewood resident who recruited a friend, Cristina Ritchie, to participate. Across the table from him, she wrote in a card, "Good luck, be safe, be strong, never give up."

Marian Weil of Squirrel Hill was writing at a table across from Valerie Graham of Wilkinsburg.

"I have a great sense of gratitude," Ms. Weil said. "I'm writing about the hockey teams coming together, how lovely it is out and that a lot of people have gathered to do this."

"I'm telling them that they're heroes," Ms. Graham said. "I tell them I hope they're safe and well, that it's a beautiful sunny day here, that they are consistently in my prayers and I'm hoping for their safe return."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292.


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