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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Volunteers flood King Day projects

Many heed president-elect Obama's call for public service
By Lauren R. Harrison and Robert Mitchum Tribune reporters
January 20, 2009
On the eve of the inauguration of a president who ran on assurances of hope, Connie Williams found a dose of her own Monday in the selfless actions of strangers. Sorting through a table at the University of Chicago Medical Center that overflowed with homemade knit hats, Williams tried to find the best one to warm her head—hairless since treatment began for her breast cancer last fall."To receive a gift from a friend is one thing, but to receive gifts from someone who doesn't even know you . . . it's unimaginable," Williams, 50, said of the donated hats. "It gets you through it, it's just a remarkable thing."As Barack Obama spent part of his day refurbishing a teen homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., Chicagoans young and old chose Monday to heed the president-elect's call for public service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Many organizers said they had never seen such a huge turnout, suggesting that the excitement surrounding Obama's inauguration, as well as the organizational power of Internet social networks, led to a surge in participation.Robyn Hall, board member of Wilmette-based The Kindness Connection, said that she had to add workshops for children and parents to craft items such as medals for Special Olympians."We opened up a second time slot because so many people wanted to sign up," she said. "That got filled up in four hours."At Sherwood Elementary School in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, more than 200 people painted murals of smiling fruit and book characters. "There's just an influx of volunteers," said Johnny Barr of City Year, which organized the project. Elsewhere, students and faculty from Prairie State College in Chicago Heights delivered 150 bags of food and toiletries to two south suburban charities, the Chi Sigma Omega sorority collected donated clothing in Bolingbrook, and 55 volunteers from Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Burbank packaged food to feed starving children.The Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal government group that coordinates King Day service efforts, reported that more than 12,000 projects were to take place Monday, twice the total as in 2008. The group worked with the inauguration committee and Web sites."The energy around service has been growing dramatically. The president-elect obviously has tapped a vein in this country," said Stan Soloway, a member of the corporation's board of directors. Knitters for Obama, which provided hats for University of Chicago Medical Center patients along with the hospital's own Forefront Stitchers, grew online to more than 4,000 members, said co-founder Kristen Rengren."For a lot of people, this is their first time doing public service," Rengren said. "I think that's one of the great things about Obama—that he's inspired people to do service for the first time."Freelance reporter Carmen Greco contributed to this report.

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