Hundreds of eighth-graders from across Massachusetts who worked on service projects in Boston on Saturday left a message of friendship to city residents: We’re here for you.
“It’s a great feeling to help other people,” said Alexa Nogler, 14, from Tyngsborough, who helped repaint the gym at the Donald McKay K-8 School in East Boston. “We are leaving our mark on their school — it’s a reminder that other people are looking out for them.”
Nogler was among 375 eighth-graders — drawn from nearly every Massachusetts city and town — who participated Saturday in Project 351’s Annual Launch & Service Day, which begins a series of community service projects across the state over the coming year. The organization’s name is a reference to the 351 communities in Massachusetts.
Participating students will receive leadership training and mentorship to help them lead “transformative change,” the organization said in a statement. Since 2011, more than 3,000 Massachusetts eighth-graders have participated in the program, according to Project 351.
The service day honored the work of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King during a kickoff event at Faneuil Hall, which brought the eighth-graders together with hundreds of other volunteers.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley, who was part of a panel discussion on Coretta Scott King hosted by WBZ-TV anchor Lisa Hughes, told the audience how they could be inspired by her as well as her husband.
King deserves his accolades, but “it also behooves us to remember that he was simply a man,” Pressley said. “And so that reminds each of us, of the power of one man and one person. Coretta supported as a partner, but she was an activist, she was an agitator, she was a disruptor in her own right.”
Pressley also took a moment to note the backdrop of the discussion Saturday: Above the Faneuil Hall stage where she spoke was “Webster’s Reply to Hayne,” which depicts an 1830 debate in the US Senate.
In the painting, men dominate the foreground, while about a dozen women are barely visible in the Senate gallery. On Saturday, Pressley and Hughes were part of a discussion panel comprised entirely of women.
“You notice the women are seated in the balcony. And so, it is a heartening moment and uplifting, in the words of Auntie Maxine, that women are reclaiming their time and are now on the floor,” Pressley said, referring to her Democratic colleague, US Representative Maxine Waters of California.
Eighth-graders who participated in service projects Saturday were organized into teams each named for a service “hero,” including historic figures like Anne Frank and Mahatma Ghandi, as well as local leaders, such as Pressley and Boston Police Commissioner William Gross.
Along with McKay, service projects Saturday included work at the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Pine Street Inn, and the Leahy-Holloran Community Center in Dorchester.
At the McKay school, the service project brought about 100 students to help paint the gym and some bathrooms, according to the principal, Jordan Weymer.
Service projects like the painting work send a clear message to his school’s students, Weymer said: “That we value you, that we love you, that you are respected here, and that you deserve our best.”
Hannah Sullivan, an eighth-grade math teacher at the Gateway Regional Middle School in Huntington, joined a group of students and teachers whohadcommuted from Western Massachusetts early Saturday morning to join in the volunteer effort.
When McKay’s students and staff return to school Tuesday, Sullivan hoped they’ll take comfort in the freshly painted walls of their school.
“I think they’ll feel appreciated, that someone cares about them,” Sullivan said.
Aurora Estabrook, a 15-year-old sophomore at Maynard High School, volunteered with Project 351 as an eighth-grader and returned this year with the organization’s alumni program to help support this year’s volunteers.
“I wanted to keep helping out,” Estabrook said. Project 351 “really helps eighth-graders realize that one person can make a difference.”
Working alongside Estabrook was Cody Selvais, a 14-year-old from Marblehead. Selvais said young people need to be included in service projects so they understand why they should help others.
“I care about my community, and it’s important to help those who are in a worse situation [than me],” he said.
Thomas Leger, 13, of Lenox said young people like him can help make a difference in the lives of students at McKay.
“It’s good to help others,” Leger said. “This is a couple hours of work, but it will still be a big deal for them.”
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.