TOWNSEND -- Where others took the day off from school or work, scores of students and local residents marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Jan. 21 by taking part in a first-of-its-kind event dedicated to doing things for others.
Held at the North Middlesex Regional High School and inspired by similar activities around the country, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service was organized and conducted for the most part by students who hoped it would become an annual tradition in town.
"I think that a lot of kids would like to stay home and sleep in," said Marina Scheid, one of the student coordinators of the holiday event. "But a lot of other students want to help out. I think it varies with each student.
"We're incorporating the community in school on projects that directly benefit the community," continued Scheid. "The point is what Martin Luther King said: 'What are you doing for others?'"
Aimed at getting all members in the community to work together on various projects that help others, the MLK Day event was broken into two morning and afternoon sessions with separate groups working on such things as making fleece blankets for local veterans, making bird feeders for use in conservation areas, writing letters to soldiers, painting murals to help spread Martin Luther King's message, community gardening, and making brown sugar soap for those living in local shelters.
Other activities included food and book drives as well as an award program for local volunteers.
Direct inspiration for Townsend's first MLK Day event came from language teacher Ray Kane, the district's service learning coordinator.
"Last year we went to Roxbury and volunteered for an event there and afterwards thought we could the same thing at North Middlesex," explained Kane. "I brought up the idea to the students and they just ran with it."
Kane said an MLK Day event dovetailed nicely with existing school policy that seeks to inculcate community service in students by integrating it in every subject area in the district's curriculum.
In the past, said Kane, the school has sent student volunteers to New Orleans and Philadelphia to perform community service and a community garden has yielded up to 40 pounds of produce for donation to the Pepperell food pantry.
"The MLK Day of Service is a national event," said Kane of how the holiday has expanded beyond civil rights to encompass social service, something that he hoped to see continue at North Middlesex every year in the form of the district's own celebration as held Jan. 21.
According to Scheid, 400 invitations were mailed out to schools, churches, and groups inviting them to participate in the MLK Day event and more than 90 people appeared to work on the various projects in the morning session alone.
"For the first event we've ever held, that's amazing!" said a delighted Scheid.
"It gives us a sense of fulfillment to serve others and to work with other members of the community," said high school senior Arpitha Hayes as she stood with a number of other young people making soap.
"It's giving back to the community that provided me with my education," added sophomore Kevin Brouillette.
"I'm doing it in honor of Martin Luther King Day," said sixth-grader Sophia Adami-Sampson as she crouched on the floor spreading paint on a mural. "I think it's a good way to celebrate and to help the community while having a good time!"
"I feel like we have enough time off from school not doing anything," said Bryan Vachon, a high school junior. "Not everyone volunteers for service but it's needed."
"Last year, I took part in the Martin Luther King Day of Service in Roxbury and thought we could do it at North Middlesex," said senior Jessica DiLorenzo as she worked boiling ingredients for the soap. "I had so much fun doing it and I like to be involved in as much community service as possible."
There were also a few adults among the volunteers, including Pepperell resident Bob Kowalski.
"I wasn't quite sure what it was all about," admitted Kowalski. "So I thought I'd come down to see and do something for the community. It was a good way to spend the holiday."
"I think it's great!" declared Townsend resident Susan Byrne as she emerged from the high school's greenhouse. "It gets kids involved. There's a lot of emphasis on community service, which we never had growing up."
The MLK Day of Service is a part of United We Serve, the President's national call-to-service initiative. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems.
"When I was younger, I learned all about Martin Luther King, but this was the first year that I'd heard anything about a Martin Luther King Day of Service," admitted high school junior Jordan Keating as he held down the welcome desk. "It's not just talk, but about doing something about bettering the community."