Hardly any of the hundreds of eighth-graders who filed into the State House yesterday morning knew each other, but they all knew the secret handshake.
As the students, one from every town and city in the state, approached the entrance, adult volunteers greeted each with a well-rehearsed series of shakes and slaps that culminated in a “windmill’’ high-five and an enthusiastic shout.
Not that these young adults needed much encouragement.
Project 351, an initiative started last year by Governor Deval Patrick, uses Martin
Luther King Jr. Day as an occasion to gather the students for a day of community service in Boston. Student “ambassadors’’ are chosen by school superintendents in each of the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns on the basis of their commitment to others.
The students, who were bused to Boston, gathered in the Great Hall of the State House yesterday to hear Patrick, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray speak.
Called on by Patrick to talk about who inspired them and what they hoped to achieve, the students didn’t hesitate to compare their work with King’s service, calling the civil-rights leader’s selflessness and perseverance an inspiration.
“Martin Luther King started it all,’’ one student volunteer told the governor. “But it’s not over yet.’’
Katelyn Miller, of Hanscom Middle School in Bedford, told Patrick that King “proved it doesn’t matter who you are, you can change what needs to be changed.’’
After the meeting with officials, students quickly turned their lofty words into action, traveling to service sites around Boston where they painted murals, made blankets for elderly residents of public housing, and assembled care packages for children at a food bank.
At the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Towers, a public housing project for elderly and disabled residents of Boston, students sat around tables and painted panels for murals that will go up on alternating floors in the building. The murals feature some of King’s well-known quotes as well as several portraits of the late civil-rights leader, who will be remembered tomorrow on the annual federal holiday commemorating his legacy.
Strangers quickly became friends among this group of precocious teens. One drew laughs with a spirited impression of King, trying in vain to lower his prepubescent voice and match King’s forceful timbre. Other students exchanged contact information and showed pictures of Patrick they captured with cellphone cameras.
David Resmini, an eighth-grade volunteer from Townsend, said he became interested in volunteerism after assisting his brother, who is deaf.
“I love impacting peoples’ lives,’’ Resmini said. “And it’s great to know there are other people like me out there.’’
At the State House, Patrick reminisced about his childhood on the South Side of Chicago, where he grew up in a tenement. He told the gathered students that although many families, including his own, were impoverished, neighbors watched out for each other.
“One thing we had was a sense of community,’’ Patrick said. “Every kid was under the jurisdiction of every parent on the street . . . What those adults were trying to get across is that each of us has a stake in each other’s dreams.’’
Menino told students they were helping to start a tradition of service.
“This is the beginning of a movement of young people making a difference,’’ Menino said. He called Boston “the Silicon Valley of volunteerism.’’
Patrick said that timing the event to coincide with the King holiday was appropriate.
“The reason to do it on Martin Luther King Day is that he so clearly understood the power of service and selflessness. You don’t often see that in public service anymore.’’
Originally intended as a one-time event to coincide with Patrick’s 2011 inauguration, Project 351 was incorporated yesterday as an ongoing nonprofit, with Patrick as the honorary chairman, according to project organizers.
Volunteer Kristen Meade, who helped organize the day’s events at the public housing site, said she was taken aback by the energy of her cadre of students.
“These guys are definitely the best and the brightest. . . . I’m thoroughly impressed.’’
Amanda Deskavich, who was chosen to represent South Deerfield, said the event was a kind of networking opportunity for engaged students like herself.
“Now, if you want to stand up and do something, there’s people you can call.’’
Deskavich said that the legacy of King and other civil-rights leaders is still relevant.
“They dedicated their lives to us. We’re the future they had in mind. It was meant for today.’’
Globe Correspondent Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.