Volunteers beautify West Side elementary school on day of service honoring King
On Monday, hundreds of volunteers gathered at Joseph Kellman Corporate Community Elementary School as part of City Year Chicago’s annual day of service to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago in 1966, he marched through the streets calling for equity for Black Chicagoans. He was met with vitriol and violence.
It was this story U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., shared with volunteers gathered at Joseph Kellman Corporate Community Elementary School on Monday. The volunteers from City Year and AmeriCorps were about to begin a day of service on the national holiday honoring the slain civil rights icon.
“If we don’t do anything else on this day but listen to his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech or read from the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ it’s worth all of the attention that we’re paying to this day and to this man,” Durbin said.
Durbin was among several high-profile leaders, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, to share messages of gratitude with the City Year and AmeriCorps volunteers via livestream. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sent a recorded message to volunteers.
Since 1988, City Year has helped develop young people through service-oriented work, putting its AmeriCorps members in underserved communities across the country. In Chicago, they work with Chicago Public Schools to assist teachers and mentor students. On Monday, City Year’s 28th annual day of service, the group chose to work with the students and staff at Kellman, 3030 W. Arthington St.
While last year’s day of service was a “hybrid” event, with 40 volunteers gathered at Wintrust Arena and others participating remotely, this year’s event involved nearly 300 volunteers, a City Year spokesperson said.
The volunteers worked in two shifts on 28 murals around the school. The projects were created with input from Kellman students and teachers, as well as Principal Sherisse Freeney. Some volunteers arrived as early as 7 a.m., and others expected to end their day around 7 p.m.
Volunteer Kourtnei Neely was part of a group painting an African proverb on the wall of a stairwell.
The beautification projects were a way of showing “education is more than just sitting in a classroom. It’s a place where you learn and grow and develop as a human being,” said Neely, 22.
“I think what MLK stood for essentially was equity and education,” she added. “And we’ve come so far, but we have so much farther to go.”
Country Club Hills resident Kene Okafor said the work the volunteers were doing Monday would help create a positive environment.
Her favorite project was a mural with a quote from King: “Education is key to liberation.”
This mural, she said, is important after a year of virtual learning during which some students might not have seen school as “an upward mobility tool.”
“I want kids to really understand that education is really your key to liberation,” Okafor said. “It’s not the end all be all. There’s so much generational trauma you have to unpack. But education gets you within the door and in the spaces you need to be to establish a new generational pattern.”
Not all of Monday’s handiwork will be displayed inside the school. In the gym, one group of volunteers worked on the “Garden Girl” project, painting flowers on wooden squares. Eventually, they will be displayed outside the school in a garden area that has been underused and needs a little TLC, said team leader Angeline Potthoff.
“We’re going to hang it up outside, and in the spring, when the weather is better, they’re going to build some picnic tables and some flower beds and rejuvenate the garden space,” Potthoff said.
Potthoff, from McKinley Park, is in her second year with City Year. She came back because she felt she didn’t get to fully connect with CPS students during remote learning.
Volunteers often are told that even when they don’t feel like they’re making a difference, they are, Potthoff said. But this year, by coming back, she said she’s starting to get some sense of accomplishment.
“I think a huge service project like this on MLK Day, when we’re beautifying a school, this is a day where you can know that you made an impact,” she said. “It’s real, you can see it, you touch it, you can feel it.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.