These quiet world-changers often go unsung.
Yet, each year educators recognize them by their kindness and the small and significant strides they make to do good for the world around them.
These are people like Alexis Westmoreland, 14, of Webster who visits the elderly in local nursing homes, or Mia Martucci, 14, of Winthrop who has raised more than $25,000 for Boston Children’s Hospital, or Kailey Butler, 14, of Agawam who works with children who have special needs. Each one sees service as a calling.
“It makes me proud,” Butler said. “I love helping people.”
Sunday morning, hundreds of these eighth-graders from across the Commonwealth gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for an event called Launch Day. They were chosen to represent their city or town as ambassadors in a statewide leadership program through a nonprofit known as Project 351. This will be a year of mentorship, one-on-one coaching, and team-building activities for these young ambassadors. The nonprofit encourages students to lead their own service project at their schools, houses of worship, or communities. A program alumni from Medfield named Sophia Gustafson performed a song she wrote about her year as an ambassador. She called it “Good News Generation.”
“Because every person in front of me will bring love to their community I mean look at what we’ll do on just Launch Day,” she sang.
The theme of the morning was “Now is the time.” Educators celebrated 45 people — dubbed service heroes — who have performed exemplary acts of community service, including the governor’s wife, Lauren Baker.
“I really appreciate the fact that this organization, every single year and almost every time you all get together, spend some time honoring, remembering, and recognizing and celebrating people who do good things,” said Governor Charlie Baker. He teared up as he talked about his wife’s work with the Wonderfund, a nonprofit that serves children of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.
Also acknowledged was Martin Richard, who was 8 when he was killed during the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. His family was present as their late son was made an honorary ambassador.
“His example of peace, kindness, teamwork, and fair play teaches us what it means to be human, to be family, to be a friend,” said Carolyn Casey, who founded Project 351 in 2011 and serves as executive director. “This year, Martin would’ve been an eighth-grader and I imagine an unsung hero and not-so-quiet leader, flashing his huge smile, extending a helping hand, and giving back to the neighborhood and the city he loves, just like his family.”
Alumni of the program spurred the new class forward.
“If I have the opportunity to help someone, I have to take it because the sad truth is that people sometimes don’t have the opportunity to help themselves,” said Joe Zebian, 14, a ninth-grader from Wilbraham and Project 351 alumni. “You have a better life and a better result as a people, as a planet, and as a nation when people help each other and people have that kind of selflessness.”
The rest of the day was about service and celebration, a time to make new friends and to understand what it means to be “one of 351.” The students participated in five service projects throughout the city. One group of students painted inspiring messages for a mural at the Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School. In the school’s cafeteria, students decorated the walls and composed care packages for the elderly.
At the Pine Street Inn, students baked lasagna. Inside the State House Hall of Flags, students prepared 1,000 care packages for students relocating to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
“This is the day that fuels my soul every year,” said Marcia Robinson, service director for Project 351. “Service to me is always joy and to see the spark in these young people that come out today who start out not knowing each other and they become a family by the end of the day.”
At the end of the day, students saw the completed mural unveiled in the hallway of the Dorchester school: an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the words “Beloved Community.” Like a mosaic, it was composed of individual wooden tiles. On each tile, ambassadors wrote their hopes for the world.
“Don’t be afraid to forgive,” said one.
“Listen,” said the tiles, “Join together” and “Be inspired to make a difference.”