The president asked. And on Saturday, hundreds in Boston answered.
As part of the National Day of Service, volunteers heeded a call from President Obama and turned out throughout the city for a variety of community projects, from serving food at soup kitchens to helping to clean blighted neighborhoods.
In Dorchester, 61-year-old Gerthy Lahens, who walks with a cane and suffers from chronic pain, joined a group picking up trash in Dudley Square.
“If I can do it, who can’t?” she said as she swept cigarette butts and litter into a dustpan. “Dudley needs more attention. I want to make people understand that we care.”
At the St. Francis House, a day shelter just off Boston Common, a half-dozen new volunteers crowded into the kitchen next to the regular volunteers to help prepare meals for the more than 400 clients who rely on the shelter for breakfast and lunch each day.
In Brighton, volunteers at Cradles to Crayons sorted and bundled donated clothing that will be distributed to nonprofits across the state.
The National Day of Service was the kickoff to three days of inaugural festivities, and an estimated 250,000people nationwide were expected to participate in the event, which also honors the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama made national service an emphasis of his 2009 inauguration as well, and on Saturday, he and his wife, Michelle, spent the morning helping to spruce up a school in Northeast Washington.
At his inauguration, John F. Kennedy famously called on the American people to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Obama made his request via e-mail and YouTube, taking advantage of the vast network of supporters who carried him to reelection.
“It’s a great way to take advantage of all those supporters after Nov. 6, but I think it needs to be more than one day,” said Megan Corrigan, a 20-year-old Harvard freshman who was wearing a hair net and slicing beets at St. Francis House.
While one of the stated goals of the National Day of Service is to encourage people to become regular volunteers in the community, many of those who give their time regularly feared that many of the newcomers would never be seen again.
Sister Linda Ballard, volunteer coordinator for the Haley House, a nonprofit group that fights poverty and homelessness, refers to them as “one-shot deals.”
“There’s a difference between doing a thing once and making a stand,” said Ballard, who worked on the Dudley Square cleanup and began the morning by explaining the intricacies of the neighborhood’s struggles in the hopes of inspiring the volunteers to come back. “It’s not enough to spend a day picking up trash. Dudley Square has trash because it’s a neglected neighborhood.”
But among those who came out for the day, there was a general sense of inspiration. Not only did they say that volunteering makes them feel good, but working alongside the regular volunteers made them see the positives that could come from ongoing service.
“It gives you a lot of perspective on what’s going on around you and how much need there is,” said Erica Sorrentino, a 28-year-old research coordinator at Dana-Farber who was preparing to serve lunch. “It makes you appreciate what you have, and it’s inspired me to continue on volunteering.”
Cradles to Crayons, which collects and distributes donated children’s items, encourages youths to volunteer, and several turned out with their parents on Saturday to get a taste of altruism.
“Doing this reminds kids that not everyone is so lucky,” Valarie Lima, a 48-year-old from Allston, said as she sorted through donated children’s books. “They want the new iPhone, but here are kids who need shoes and backpacks.”
One day of effort will not change society’s ills.
But as the newcomers realized on Saturday, one day of volunteering can change someone’s perspective.
“When I walked in [to the St. Francis House] and saw that there were so many people waiting to be fed, I was blown away,” said Sherry Walker of Dedham.
Amidst the newcomers in their Obama T-shirts in the cramped kitchen at the St. Francis House was Jill Coleman of Brookline. In 2008, she came to St. Francis with her son, who was volunteering as part of a high school project, and has been a regular ever since.
She thought the National Day of Service was a great way to raise people’s consciousness and show them that there is a very real need.
“It’s amazing how many people will volunteer if you just ask them,” Coleman said as she shredded carrots. “One of the great things about this country is that we’ve got so many people who are willing to help out.”
Lahens, an activist in the Haitian community, said she has tried to turn personal hardship into benefit for others. After once losing her own home, she became a housing advocate for groups like the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. She also helped found a charity that helps victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“When something bad happens, you make it a lesson to show others so they don’t suffer through the same thing,” she said. “When people are helping you, it’s no longer a problem; it’s an adventure.”
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker. Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.