Hundreds of Athens residents braved sub-freezing temperatures early Monday to help out in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.
Many of them gathered at 8:30 a.m. in Clarke Central High School’s gymnasium, where they could avail themselves of donated chicken biscuits and coffee before they set out for a few hours of community service on the day that honors the birthday of the slain civil rights leader.
Volunteers with the Athens Area Human Relations Council were stationed up front, handing out grocery bags of food.
The crowd heard a few speakers who spoke of King’s legacy, and sometimes how people could help fulfill King’s dream of peace and justice beyond this one federal holiday.
“Don’t let it just be a warm, fuzzy feeling,” Clarke County School Board member Ovita Thornton told hundreds of people listening from the bleachers of the Clarke Central gym.
There’s a strong correlation between not reading on grade level by third grade and enduring later troubles in life, including prison, she reminded them.
“There is work to do after today,” she said, urging those gathered to get involved in helping young children succeed in school.
Click the image to see more photos from the Day of Service.
After the speakers at Clarke Central, the hundreds of volunteers in the gym spread out across the county to more than a dozen sites chosen for this year’s Day of Service. They headed for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, The West Broad Market Garden, Brooklyn Cemetery and others. One small group wound up at the North Oconee River to help stabilize a stream bank.
Many more were already at work, not only at this year’s official sites, but others as well.
On Roberts Road on the back side of Whitehead Road Elementary School, Athenian Reese Benson was using a small excavator to set right a toppled tombstone in a half-forgotten cemetery as Myerere Tryman and Jeff Snowden helped guide the stone into place atop its base.
That done, Benson used the machine to pull out dead trees from the graveyard, then used a chainsaw to cut them up into manageable lengths.
Nearby, Benson’s wife, Danielle Benson, teenagers Ty Gresham and J.V. Clark, and others helped clear out brush from the old St. James Baptist Church graveyard, which seemed full of military veterans’ graves.
People who live in the neighborhood are planning to put a fence up around the graveyard and restore it to a more park-like setting. A small group began the restoration effort about a year ago and have set up a Facebook page (“Friends of St. James Cemetery”), Snowden said.
The group has identified about 50 burial sites, some dating back to the 1800s, but the remains of many more people are likely in the cemetery in unmarked graves, Snowden said.
Across town, Lucie Claire Corbett, an Athens Academy seventh-grader, and mother Cundy Bryson were among a small group of people helping out at Oconee Street Methodist Church.
The church is the temporary home of Our Daily Bread. Operated by Action Ministries, Our Daily Bread daily serves lunches to homeless people or anyone else who shows up and says they’re hungry, said kitchen manager Zachary Burgess, a Morehouse College graduate and former Clarke County School District special education teacher.
On Monday they got more than a hot meal. Many received socks, knitted hats and other items Bryson and Corbett helped distribute.
A downtown parade and music festival capped the day’s formal activities.
This year’s MLK Day Parade was larger than last year, perhaps because this is an election year for the Athens-Clarke County Commission and the Clarke County Board of Education. This year’s parade entries included several groups representing candidates for office, including the candidates themselves, and a good many elected officials.
Click the image to see photos from the MLK Day Parade.