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Robert Blake of Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation carries trash out of Blandford Canyon as part of local volunteer efforts on Monday’s King Day of Service.
Teenagers Kendall Record, Frances Calvin and Kaliyah Davis spent Monday morning digging junk out of a dry roadside ditch in Blandford Canyon, the steep north-south furrow that cuts through Vancouver's Heights neighborhoods.
On their first pass, they collected big prizes — such as car tires — but subsequent efforts got down to rags, wrappers and shards of shattered glass. At one point, they huddled over the broken neck of a bottle and spent minutes trying to pry it from the frozen ground.
"It disappoints me that people do this. You'd think that adults would be more responsible," said Record, 16. But then again, she added, it felt good to be able to step in and make a difference. Record and her pals have also scoured clean other Clark County park and trail sites, from Frenchman's Bar to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, as part of Urban Youth, a program that aims to expose at-risk kids to nature -- and the joy of giving back.
That joy was widespread across Clark County on Monday. Since 1983, the third Monday in January has been a federal holiday commemorating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; in 1994, the holiday also became the King Day of Service, with citizens encouraged to pitch in and improve their neighborhoods, and our nation, in whatever ways they choose.
King "is my favorite person in history," said Linda Clifton, part of another Blandford work party that was busy yanking invasive ivy up off the forest floor and down off the trunks of trees that otherwise could be choked to death by the creeping weed. "He wanted everyone to give back. He would have wanted us to do this," Clifton added.
"I'm here because of MLK," is how Gerry Navarro, a 15-year-old student at Hudson's Bay High School, summed it up. Navarro was up at the mouth of Blandford Canyon, on MacArthur Boulevard, where he worked to cover weeds and grass with mulch in advance of a tree planting set for Feb. 9. His buddy, Sean Chastang, 19, worked with him. They're also involved with Urban Youth, but nobody made the pair turn out on this frosty Monday morning — other than the example of Martin Luther King, Chastang said.
King was remembered, and quoted, during a musical welcome to the fifth annual day of service hosted by Washington State University Vancouver. A specially formed, multiracial MLK Day Gospel Choir sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the so-called African-American National Anthem, and overlaid the music with selections from King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. After that, came talks by Bola Majekobaje, the campus assistant director for student diversity, and Tillie MakePeace, program director for Janus Youth Programs.
Majekobaje said the WSUV program was due thanks in part to a $1,000 grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service; the grant aims to help grow local volunteerism from an annual outing to an ongoing lifetstyle, she said. More than 100 volunteers were on hand at WSUV to pack donated toiletries and personal supplies that will be delivered to homeless youth by Janus, and to pack school supplies into backpacks for needy children in the Vancouver school district.
Kendal Vombaur, a recent WSUV graduate, said she volunteered on Monday because she wants to stay positive and productive while still looking for work. "I don't have anything better to do, and I'm passionate about helping people," Vombaur said.
Elsewhere in Clark County, over the weekend and on the King Day of Service on Monday, volunteers helped recarpet the YWCA Clark County and prepare books and literacy program materials for the library district; sorted donations at the Clark County Food Bank and worked the warehouse at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore; planted trees and preserved wetlands in the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and along the Burnt Bridge Creek Greeenway in Vancouver; and maintained Vancouver's Waterfront Trail and started building a new outdoor nature classroom near the Water Resources Education Center. Medical professionals from Kaiser Permanente volunteered their time at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, offering free medical and eye care all day long.
The day started with icy grass crunching underfoot and steaming breath swirling in the air up in Felida, where about 30 volunteers gathered to prune, weed and dig out blackberries at the Foley Park Orchard. The ground was frozen, but a little muscle behind a shovel managed to break the soil and get at hidden roots.
The whole landscape was buried under bramble not that long ago, according to returning volunteer Tom Tucker; now, the orchard's more than 150 trees are thriving under the community's care, he added. A work party last fall harvested approximately 750 pounds of pears for the Clark County Food Bank, Tucker said. This year, it'll probably be more like 1,000 pounds, he predicted.
"I call it our secret garden," said volunteer Margaret Bates, who drove all the way over from the Minnehaha area — for the second year in a row — to work in the orchard, which is tucked well away from Northwest 21st Avenue, north of 119th Street. "It's part of our heritage," said Bates. "This was a fruit-growing county before all of us were born."
"We'd never get this work done without volunteers," said Laura Hudson, a Blandford neighbor and interim director of the joint city-county parks department -- which has suffered round after round of budget cuts over the past several years. What's really needed to fight back trash and creeping ivy, Hudson said, is a routine work party every month or so.
Volunteer coordinator Hailey Heath said just such an effort is getting started — led by another local neighbor and available to all through parkhero.org, a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities in Clark County parks. She encouraged everyone to sign up and get busy — a whole lot more often than just one special day per year.
"This is how we're going to save these parks," Heath said while hustling from one volunteer crew to another.