Fourteen buses, one ferry, and one plane brought together nearly 400 eighth-grade students from across the state in Boston Saturday morning for a day of community service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
Governor Charlie Baker addressed the students at Faneuil Hall and told them that when he was a college freshman he heard a radio ad for the Big Brothers organization and wrote the number on his desk calendar. After staring at it for a few weeks, he called the number and was matched with an 11-year-old boy.
"We literally spent a huge part of the next 20 years together," said Baker to a sea of 800 students and volunteers during the event's kickoff. "People have said to me, 'Why did you do that?' I don't know. I just wanted to."
Project 351, which organized Saturday's event, selects eighth-grade students from each of Massachusetts' 351 towns and cities to inspire and facilitate community service. Students gather in the spring and fall for a day of group community service, leading service projects within their own communities in the interim.
Baker spoke of how he jumped at the idea to create a pathway for young people "who in some not-quite-yet formed way want to be part of something big and be a part of service."
"Service is one of those ideas that everyone can agree on," said Carolyn Casey, executive director and founder of Project 351.
The students were divided into teams named after people many referred to as heroes, including Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank — and closer to home, Michelle Wu, Dawnn Jaffier, and Martin Richard. Each team stood up one by one to a round of applause, the beaming eighth-graders wearing long-sleeve shirts with "I HAVE A DREAM" printed in white on the back.
Following the ceremony, the eighth-graders split into groups to do community service at one of six sites: the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter in the South End; Greater Boston Food Bank; Meals of Hope, an anti-hunger effort teaming up with various food banks across the state; Y2Y, a student-run youth homeless shelter in Harvard Square; Cradles to Crayons, a charity for children who are homeless and in low-income situations; and Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a movement for youth education, culture, and community-building.
At the Pine Street Inn, 60 students crowded into a second-floor room to paint murals on canvases, organize bags of hygiene products, make fleece scarves, decorate handmade birthday cards, and bake apple pies for the residents.
Sitting at the table of busy young people making scarves was 17-year-old Daniel Heines from Marshfield, who has returned each year since participating in Project 351 as an eighth-grader four years ago.
When he first heard of Project 351, he said, he didn't know what it was.
"But it kinda turned into my life, almost," said Heines as he snipped at a piece of dark green fleece, a blue Project 351 wrist band visible on his left wrist. "My closest friends are all in Project 351."
On Saturday, he was the alumni leader helping coordinate the service effort by Team Marisol O'Brien, named after an 8-year-old Lexington girl who died seven years ago from the degenerative brain disease leukodystrophy. Her parents, Thomas and Patricia O'Brien, brother, Tomas, and sister, Dureti, assisted the volunteers. Service efforts like these keep Marisol's cheerful spirit going, said Thomas and Tomas.
"There are all kinds of decisions that have been made for you up until this point in time in your life, by your parents, by your teachers, by your coaches," said Baker in a relaxed interview with WBZ-TV anchor Lisa Hughes onstage during the Faneuil Hall kickoff.
But increasingly, you will make the decisions in your own life, he told the students.
Project 351 is already succeeding at its goal of encouraging long-term volunteer work, said Scottie Wait, director of volunteer programs for Pine Street Inn. She has had alumni from the project return as high school students to volunteer at the busy shelter.
"The best part of this day is that it's only the beginning," said Casey, Project 351's founder.