UMSL volunteers make their mark around the region on MLK Day of Service

by | Jan 21, 2020

Students, faculty, staff and alumni pitched in at eight sites around St. Louis, joined by a group of teenagers from Westchester County, New York, during the 12th annual service event.
MLK Day of Service

Senior psychology major Demarcos Biggs paints a door frame at Signal Hill United Methodist Church in Belleville, Illinois, Monday morning during UMSL’s 12th annual MLK Day of Service. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Demarcos Biggs pulled down the white dusk mask over his mouth as he lifted the mini roller out of the paint pan lying on the floor.

He then trained his eyes on the doorframe and went to work.

His right hand moved up and down quickly, purposefully, but he took care to lift the door latch out of the way to keep it clean from the fresh coat of white.

Biggs, a senior psychology major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, could have been doing a lot of things on the final day of his winter break. Or he could have been doing nothing at all.

MLK Day of Service

Senior psychology major Demarcos Biggs and MSC guest relations coordinator Joshua Givens carry a table at Signal Hill United Methodist Church during MLK Day of Service.

Instead, he was doing his part to spruce up the walls of an old daycare space at the Signal Hill United Methodist Church across the river in Belleville, Illinois.

He was among the more than 120 volunteers, including students, faculty, staff and alumni, giving up a few hours of their time – more than 380 hours combined – on service projects around the St. Louis region as part of UMSL’s 12th annual MLK Day of Service.

“Honestly, I said to myself, ‘What am I going to be doing with today?’” Biggs said. “I’m not in school. I’ve got to work later on today, but I said I’m going to also give my time to the community.”

Biggs was a first-time participant in the event – organized by UMSL Students of Service in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday – but he’d felt the payoff from giving back last year while going on an alternative spring break trip to Louisville, Kentucky. He’s sought out opportunities to help where he can ever since.

“It felt really rewarding giving back to the community,” he said. “I didn’t think it would. I thought it would feel like I was doing free work or whatever, but when you do it and actually see the lives that you’re changing and the impact, it does something to you.”

Dorian Hall, the associate director of the Millennium Student Center and an UMSL graduate, lives near Signal Hill and is involved in a local chapter of Blessings in a Backpack that uses the church for food storage and preparation. He recommended it as a work site for this year’s day of service.

MLK Day of Service

High school students from J-Teen Leadership, a Jewish service organization in Westchester County, New York, paint one of the rooms in a former daycare space at Signal Hill United Methodist Church in Belleville, Illinois.

“This was really a way to help the church get some of the things done that they needed to be able to better support the community and better support other organizations that want to do things in the community,” Hall said.

Hall, Biggs, recent graduate Taylor Milon and MSC guest relations coordinator Joshua Givens got plenty of help from a group of 26 high school students from Westchester County, New York. They were part of the organization J-Teen Leadership, a community service, leadership development organization for Jewish high school students from all backgrounds and affiliations, based in White Plains, less than 30 miles north of New York City.

J-Teen sends a group of teenagers on a national service trip each year to a different part of the country, and they had been in town all weekend doing service work around the region.

“We engage 200 teens in our monthly leadership circle meetings,” high school senior Abe Baker-Butler said. “Each year we work with about a thousand of teens overall on projects ranging from local community service initiatives to service trips like this one to interfaith speakers and events. Today, while we’re here in St. Louis, there are 200 of us back home leading an interfaith event packing supplies for disaster stricken areas.”

The J-Teen leaders had been looking for a service opportunity to round out their weekend before returning to home Monday evening.

MLK Day of Service

Senior education major Elizabeth Younger and senior electrical engineering major Nick Barbeau help clean up after painting the lower level of the Florissant Government Building during MLK Day of Service.

“They found us online,” said Milon, the site coordinator at Signal Hill. “If you Google us, we’re the first people that pop up, and they got in touch with Dr. Ashlee Roberts, who’s the advisor for UMSL Students of Service.”

That speaks to the reputation and reach UMSL’s MLK Day of Service has built over the past 12 years.

This year, it featured eight sites: two with the City of Florissant, Gateway GreeningGood Shepherd Arts Center, LifeBridge Partnership, Mid-County Family YMCA and the UMSL MSC, in addition to Signal Hill.

“Our key goal on MLK Day of Service is to serve organizations that serve every day,” Roberts said. “Our guiding question is: Would this be completed without volunteers?”

There is never a shortage of organizations in need the help.

“There were a lot of options to do,” said senior Elizabeth Younger, who volunteered with approximately 40 other members of the UMSL community at the City of Florissant Development Project.

She helped repaint the walls of the city’s media center, used for filming public service announcements and other videos, in the basement of the Florissant Government Building.

Upstairs, volunteers constructed wood boxes that will be used as free libraries around the community.

“This seemed the most beneficial to where we go to school and live,” said Younger, an education major studying middle school English Language Arts. “I wanted to do something local and that directly went back to the community that we’re in.”

MLK Day of Service

Volunteers stand in front of the Good Shepherd Arts Center Monday during MLK Day of Service. A group of eight students were among the volunteers to repainting the interior walls of the gallery in downtown Ferguson.

Even closer to campus, a group of eight students and database program manager Chris Miller worked to apply fresh paint to the walls of the Good Shepherd Arts Center for the first time since its opening in 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd established the arts center in 2015, a year after the shooting death of Michael Brown, with the intention of creating a presence of peace in community. The center highlights the work of artists in north St. Louis County.

Executive Director Sister Glynis Mary McManamon and Program Director Patricia Johnson were grateful for the volunteers.

“We’re looking at these gals, and they just have amazing energy and focus and dedication and provided a lot of reinforcement support to us,” McManamon said. “We’re just so grateful they signed up to take us on. This was our first year. With all these willing, young ladies and Mr. Miller, we just have seen an amazing transformation.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik