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Thousands serve on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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On Monday many Indianapolis residents dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a time to help strengthen the country, not as a day off.

From participating in celebrations at various churches and a symbolic march on Indiana Avenue, to a student symposium at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, people dedicated themselves to honoring the legacy of King and helping those in need through various service projects.

The activities of local volunteers reflected the efforts of citizens across the country who heeded President Barack Obama’s call to make Monday a “national day of service.”

With paint rollers, scrub brushes, work gloves and rakes, thousands of San Francisco Bay Area residents pitched in, side by side with neighbors and strangers, to help improve their communities: cleaning up beaches, painting homeless shelters, weeding parks and reaching out to homeowners at risk of foreclosure.

Thousands of people also gathered Monday at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to hear speeches and music, and to watch footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

Monday’s events marked a transition from the era of big marches on the holiday to a budding movement that is more about rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work.

On Treasure Island, Lisa Rosenthal and her daughter Emily were among 15 volunteers painting and refurbishing an apartment for several formerly homeless female veterans. They were recruited by the group Swords to Plowshares, which advertised the event through an Obama campaign Web site.

“Obama did a great job in the campaign inspiring people on a grassroots level,” said Rosenthal, 57, a Web site editor from Burlingame. “There’s a hunger to want to continue serving our community.”

Mary Rivera, 49, who served eight years as an electrician in the U.S. Navy and now lives in transitional housing on Treasure Island, was touched by the volunteers in her living room.

“I’m really happy they’re here,” she said. “They could’ve been somewhere else, because it’s a holiday, but they’re trying to help veterans.”

The holiday, first observed in 1986, was adapted by Congress in 1994 to honor King with community service. That approach received a huge boost this year when Obama asked Americans to volunteer. The holiday for King’s Jan. 15 birthday is observed on the third Monday in January, which this year happened to fall on the day before Obama’s inauguration as the country’s first African American president.

The dream

Tears streamed down many faces in the crowd at the Civic Center as the audience listened to King intone: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Afterward, 10-year-old Tyler Robinson of Menlo Park thought about Obama’s coming inauguration and reflected, “It was almost like Martin Luther King predicted that it would happen.”

His mother, Allison Robinson, who was laid off from her job as a receptionist before Christmas, said she’s praying that Obama can provide not just symbolic aid but help for the economy as well.

For 20 years, African Americans and other civil rights supporters in the Bay Area have marched down San Francisco’s Market Street to rally at the Civic Center, more recently inside the civic auditorium.

Corey Monroe, 37, a case manager who works with children whose parents are incarcerated, was glowing after the Civic Center gathering. He planned to make a visit to teenagers in juvenile hall Monday evening and talk about the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and of Obama’s inauguration. “This is something they can grab hold of and ride along with everyone else.”

Walking the walk

In Washington, Obama spent Monday morning wielding a paint roller, working alongside teenagers painting a shelter for homeless youth. He reminded the kids of a quote by King: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

Obama spoke of the need for the government to do more to ensure that Americans have health care, jobs and the chance to go to college. However, government can only do so much, Obama said, “and given the crisis that we’re in and the hardships that so many people are going through, we can’t allow any idle hands. Everybody’s got to be involved; everybody’s going to have to pitch in.”

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