The air was crisp Monday morning. Ice coated the puddles in a parking lot off Northeast Andresen Road.
But despite the chill, the sound of shovels against dirt echoed from the Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway. A group of about 250 adults and children toiled away, stabbing at stubborn clumps of cold soil, their breaths building a layer of fog over the group.
Their goal was to have planted 7,000 trees by day’s end.
And that was just one of many selfless activities on the day named after a man who preached and practiced community service.
Almost 20 years ago, Congress declared the third Monday in January a national day of service in honor of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. On Monday, hundreds of Clark County residents heeded the call and gave back to their community. They fed the hungry, cleaned up beaches, planted trees and helped build a home, to name just a few activities.
Many used the service day as a teaching opportunity, showing their children what it means to truly belong to a community. And a Jewish congregation on Monday started a new annual ritual centered on giving.
A new home
The Hebrew word mitzvah can mean several things. But on Monday, the Congregation Kol Ami focused on one possible translation — act of kindness.
Members of the Vancouver congregation fanned out across the county for their first Mitzvah Day. They helped at six different sites, including working with the regular volunteers from Habitat for Humanity building a house near Northeast Covington Road.
Community service is a big part of Kol Ami on any day, but presenting its members with a choice of six projects makes everyone aware of the different volunteer opportunities that exist in Clark County, said Diane Moeglein, a member of the congregation.
She was laying tile in the near-finished Habitat home with her daughter, Larissa Severns, and a friend. Larissa had suggested they choose the homebuilding project for their service, saying she found it the most helpful out of the options on Kol Ami’s list.
“I just like helping people,” the teenager said matter-of-factly when asked what brought her here on a day when school is out.
The house they were helping to finish will be dedicated later this month. A single mother with three children will move in to the home, said volunteer coordinator Melissa Carson.
Habitat homes, by the way, aren’t free to the recipients. The single mom will pay a mortgage, but will only have to pay for how much it cost to build the home, and the loan carries no interest.
Nearby, the brand-new home for one of Clark County’s largest charitable organizations created another opportunity to put a lot of volunteers to work.
The Clark County Food Bank fully moved into its new digs off Northeast Minnehaha Street two weeks ago. The new, larger facility for the first time allowed the nonprofit to process a whole truckload of citrus fruit, said Bill Coleman, who sits on the board of the food bank.
Volunteers split 40,000 pounds of oranges into 5-pound bags Monday. In the past, the food bank, which acts as a distributor to smaller food pantries and doesn’t give out food to individuals, had to forward entire pallets of perishable fruit to the pantries, Coleman said.
This meant that only pantries above a certain size would get the fruit, as small neighborhood groups didn’t have the capacity to deal with large quantities. But everyone can handle 5-pound bags, which means a lot more people in need will get their hands on some vitamin C in the coming weeks, Coleman said.
Nearly 200 volunteers filled the processing room at the food bank warehouse. Some of them just showed up, but many were coordinated by one of several organizations — Leadership Clark County, Kol Ami and Kaiser Permanente.
Day on, not day off
About 750 employees of health care provider Kaiser, plus many of their family members, worked on volunteer projects in Clark County on Monday, said Sue Hennessy, a vice president with the company.
Kaiser offices and clinics were open Monday and all employees, including those behind the scenes, were expected to report to work.
Unless they wanted to give back. Kaiser paid those who signed up for a project their regular daily wage, Hennessy said.
“It’s a day on, not a day off for us,” Hennessy said.
Alesha Pereira, who works in Kaiser’s pharmacy administration, said she used Monday to teach her daughter the importance of her family’s values and of being part of the community. Those values relate to those embodied by the late Martin Luther King Jr., she said.
“We’re making life in what was an empty field earlier today,” Pereira said, leaning on a shovel next to the sapling she’d just planted near Burnt Bridge Creek.
Contributing in such a tangible way as creating a living forest brought out a recurring theme that frosty morning, Pereira said.
Many administrators at Kaiser are former nurses or technicians, for example — professionals used to healing patients hands-on. Their skills might be more valued — and more valuable — in their back office functions now. But that doesn’t mean they don’t miss the direct, easily felt impact on human beings they experienced as medical practitioners, Pereira said.
“This seems to be a good substitution for hands-on care,” she said, before driving her spade into the ground to make room for one more plant.
Break the soil
The volunteers on the greenway were building a new habitat for animals, both on land and in the water. The trees will provide cover for furry and feathered critters, and give shade to the creek, which will make it more hospitable to native salmon species, said Gary Bock, executive director of the Vancouver Watershed Alliance.
The tree-planting also provided opportunity to a large group of students — opportunity to grow and to learn.
Kids from Martin Luther King Elementary and from Fort Vancouver High School laid out row after row of young trees.
“I want the kids to have the experience of what it was like to walk in the footsteps of Dr. King,” said Edward Esparza, who coordinated the students’ efforts for Vancouver Public Schools. “I want the youth to have the experience to stand for something they believe in.”
By breaking the soil and — courtesy of a breakfast donated by the Ridgefield Lions Club — breaking the bread, the students build experiences and understand the intrinsic value of community service, Esparza said.
It goes hand-in-hand with the teachings of King, he said.
“(He taught) the importance of education, the importance of community and the importance of making our country great,” Esparza said.
A lot of people young and old realized all three Monday.
Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4514; jacques.vonlunen//www.twitter.com/col_schools.