CARY — Eight-year-old Jaden Fisher searched patiently for a red O to complete the "THANK YOU" Valentine's card he was making to send to a member of the armed forces. All the O's in the box of rubber alphabet stickers were white, so Jaden's mother fished out a red Q, and they scratched off the tail.
Jaden applied the modified O and grinned. Perfection.
Jaden had joined scores of other kids and adults - but mostly kids - at White Plains Children Center to give back on Monday's national day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In an event organized and sponsored by Triangle United Way, about 150 volunteers gathered at the center to make cards for troops, pack groceries into backpacks for needy kids, and help with various chores onsite. The United Way held similar events in Durham, Johnston and Orange counties on Monday, as did other nonprofit organizations across the Triangle.
Jaden, who attends Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, came to the event with the Raleigh-Wake chapter of Jack & Jill of America, an African-American mom-led community service group that teaches children leadership skills they can carry into adulthood. One of their teen volunteers in Cary on Monday, Cherice Hughes-Oliver, 17, an Enloe High School senior, has been participating in Jack & Jill service projects since the third grade.
Across the hallway from the tables of construction paper, stickers and glitter was a more chaotic scene, as youngsters filed through an assembly line filling backpacks and paper grocery bags with juice, canned goods, noodles, and other nonperishable food items for the Interfaith Food Shuttle's BackPack Buddies program. BackPack Buddies provides hungry children with weekend meals during the school year.
Four-and-a-half-year-old Tia Burkett of Morrisville was all business, but having fun toting grocery bags almost as big as she was from station to station. Tia paused briefly to estimate that she had carried "a lot" of bags, then went back to work. It was Tia's first time volunteering, but her sister Dana, 7, participated last year.
'Day on,' not 'day off'
Tia and Dana were part of a group of 57 volunteers from Capital City Provisional Group, a Raleigh-based service-oriented nonprofit that delivered more than 100 food kits last week and provided much of the food going into the sacks Monday. Capital City's president Shonette Charles said the organization, which aims to teach leadership skills to children while aiding the community, held a Black Santa Breakfast in December to raise money to buy the supplies.
Outside in the chilly morning air, teens and adult volunteers spray-painted bookcases, worked in the playground and gardens, and tore down an old storage shed that would be rehabbed for another group.
Everyone had jobs to do until noon, when they would break for pizza and a short program offering reflection on Dr. King and the value of helping others.
Instilling in young kids the inclination to help others was a big part of the motivation for the adults who coordinated and supervised Monday's activities.
Anathalie Priestley moved to Morrisville from California five months ago, where she and her daughter Nikki, 10, volunteered regularly. Nikki, a reluctant soldier Monday who would have preferred a morning volunteering with cats at the Wake SPCA over cleaning a classroom, didn't shirk her less glamorous duties. She stoically wiped down an art easel while her mother cleaned boxes of toys and supplies.
"We'd heard about the national campaign to make today a day of service, of making it a 'day on' instead of a 'day off,' " Anathalie Priestley said. "So I just wanted to start a tradition with her, trying to instill in her the importance of volunteering and giving to the community. This is something we started doing in California, so we're continuing the tradition here."