by Sue Ann Rybak

More than a hundred volunteers gathered in the auditorium of C.W. Henry Elementary School, 601 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy, to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by participating in the 20th Annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service on Monday, Jan. 19.

Volunteers from several community organizations and universities, including Weavers Way Co-op, St. Joseph University’s rowing team, Drexel University students and the Unitarian Society of Germantown, sorted and labeled thousands of textbooks and children’s books, removed old iMac computers, broken TVs, and other outdated technology from classrooms, painted the auditorium, and removed school supplies and other items to help set up a student resource center at the school.

Francesca Cantarini, who teaches reading and language arts to seventh and eighth graders at Henry School, said that when the librarians were taken out of the school system a few years ago, the school was forced close its library.

“We never had enough room at this school to have a cafeteria, a library and a gymnasium,” she said. “Everything had to double up. When the library closed, all the supplies and books for the whole school ended up in this room making it unusable.”

Cantarini said many community members, many of whom are former teachers, have offered to tutor students, but the school didn’t have a space to accommodate them.

“We are turning this space into a student resource center so volunteers can help the kids who need extra help – especially now that special ed services have been cut,” she said. “All the textbooks are going to the Philadelphia Book Bank so other teachers can get their hands on them if they need them. All the books that are K through eight are going to be separated, and our kids will be able to buy a bag of books for a buck. All the money raised will go to the student activities fund.”

Cantarini noted that all the books, school supplies and old technology will be reused or recycled.

“The student resource center will be revolutionary for the upper school because our kids don’t have a place to check out books and get tutoring,” she added. “Without these folks help we couldn’t do it because we have to teach when we are here.”

The Rev. Kent Matthies, of the Unitarian Society of Germantown, helped organize volunteers for the project.

“Yesterday, our congregation helped organize over 600 volunteers who participated in events around the city,” he said. “Coming off the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, the energy is contagious to more fully live out Dr. King’s vision for America.”

Kellan White, community relations manager for Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,when asked why he decided to help volunteer at the school.

“Martin Luther King Jr. said ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘what have you done for others’” he said. “I believe that the best way to give back to the community is to invest in public education. I figured this was a small way to invest in the local public school – C.W. Henry.”

White added that both his niece and nephew attend the Mt. Airy elementary school.

Michael Burrell, 46, whose son is a third grader at the school, said participating in Martin Luther King, Day of Service is a great way to remember the civil rights activist who died fighting for “freedom and equality.”

“We say it all the time, but we have to work as village,” said Burrell, referring to the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“One of the things that is key to the success of C.W. Henry is parents involvement,” he said. “If we want our children to have a better education then we need to work together. That’s our job – we need to split the work like a village. The teachers can’t do it by themselves.”

Eighth-grader Nasir Taylor, who was one of the many students helping to declutter and organize school supplies, said “It’s great to see other people in the community volunteer their time to try and help us make the school a better place.”

Amyah Lewis, another eighth grader at the school, said she decided to help out on Martin Luther King Day because she would rather help her school than just sit home and watch TV all day.

Mark Klempner, 59, who lives across from the school, said as a Mt. Airy resident he has “an interest in the condition of the school,” and he added, “this school district needs all the help it can get.”

“I have a bit of personal pay back,” he confessed. “Years ago, I would come home to find dozens and dozens of discarded candy wrappers and potato chip bags that littered the playground and sidewalk. So, I wrote a letter to the principal, and the next day it was like somebody threw a switch. Since then, there has been no trash.

“I saw principal [Fatima] Rogers this morning and thanked her,” said Klempner, as he stood painting a heating vent in the school’s auditorium. “I asked her to thank the kids because they need positive feedback.

He noted that the physical environment of the school has an impact on students’ morale and ability to learn.

“I wanted to give back,” Klempner said. “I enjoy improving the condition of the school, and I know that it is appreciated.”

Rogers said this is the third year the school has participated in the event, and every year it gets better.

“I am very grateful for the volunteers and what they do at our school,” Rogers said. “There are many places in Philadelphia that they could choose to come volunteer, but they choose to come to Henry and we appreciate it.”