Photo Gallery: A 'Day of Service' in Berkshire County

NORTH ADAMS -- For Arianna Stetson, Monday's holiday was a day on, not a day off.

Stetson, 13 of Shaftsbury, Vt., was one of a dozen Pine Cobble School students volunteering at the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams during the morning, as part of the 21st Annual Northern Berkshire Martin Luther King Day Celebration and Day of Service.

The event was among several held in north, central and south Berkshire County as residents marked the anniversary of King's birth with service, song, prayer and words of praise.

"The Student Government decided to send volunteers," Stetson said. "We're hoping to expand this throughout more of the school."

It was the fifth year in a row the annual celebration featured a day of service. Both were sponsored by the Martin Luther King Day Committee and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

Nearly 200 people rolled up their sleeves for 17 service projects, which included helping to renovate a home for Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, sewing mittens for young children in need, weatherizing several homes, and making care boxes for military personnel serving overseas.

Laurie Boudreau and her daughter, Holly, 12, of Clarksburg, joined a dozen people at Goodwill on State Street in North Adams to restock different departments. Laurie said her daughter participated in last year's event and enjoyed it.

"I think it's important to support her and to let her know that this is a good thing to do," she said.

At the Friendship Center Food Pantry on Eagle Street, a group of volunteers, including Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students, helped by doubling-up shopping bags. The task is too time consuming to carry out when distributing food every Wednesday, Mark Davis of the center said.

Davis said the center was very thankful for volunteers.

"Hopefully, people coming in to volunteer on Martin Luther King Day may say, ‘This is something I'd like to do more often,' " he said. "We have a good crew of volunteers each week now, but we're certainly always looking for more."

Following the projects, volunteers and community leaders gathered at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts for a celebration, which included performances by local groups.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, spoke about becoming inspired when helping the community. That feeling counteracts cynicism, he said, a dangerous part of any community.

"If you let that sink in, it takes away your power as an individual. It takes away the control you have over your life," he said.

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Peacemaker Award was given to Paul Austin, Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity president. Austin, a trained engineer, is the project manager of a current project in North Adams.

"He's one of those guys who says ... as long as you can nail a nail, plaster something on the wall, measure and read a tape, he welcomes you into his house of humanity," Alex Daugherty, chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, said during the presentation.

Overflow crowd in Great Barrington

The influence and philosophy of slain civil rights leader was celebrated on Monday afternoon at a multi-media, multi-racial, multi-generational event at the First Congregational Church on Main Street in Great Barrington.

An overflow crowd of more than 150 attended the event, prompting the host pastor, the Rev. Charles Van Ausdall, to note that the service, which has been traditionally been scheduled for the church's sanctuary room, may need to move.

"We may have to shift this event to the big room [the church's worship space] if this gets much bigger," he said.

This is the 15th year the First Congregational Church has hosted the event.

"I was overwhelmed by the response," Van Ausdall said. "And the best thing I can say is that I saw young people and babies in attendance. And people of all colors."

The 55-minute presentation featured hymns, traditional songs, spoken-word performances and rap music.

Well-known local singer Wanda Houston was the principal attraction. She performed a stirring version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" that eventually had the crowd singing along. Later, she sang "Get Together," popularized by the 1960s pop group The Youngbloods.

"Those are the final words Dr. King spoke at the March on Washington speech," said Houston "I always felt he had more to say that day."

Luci Z. Leonard of the Macedonia Baptist Church performed two spirituals, One, "Lord Don't Move The Mountain," was written and performed by Mahalia Jackson and a host of artists, including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Hintons, Etta James, Doris Akers and others. The other song, "Hold On Just A Little While Longer," is a traditional African American spiritual that came over from Africa with slaves in the 18th century.

"I didn't sing the whole songs," said Leonard, who was battling an upper respiratory ailment. "I wanted to get them both in, but I sang the short versions."

Yevin Roh, of the Railroad Street Youth Project, presented a spoken-word performance. Other members of the Railroad Street Youth project, Music In Common, Multicultural BRIDGE and local high schools sang or rapped tributes to Dr. King.

The rap song, "We Will Remember" was written by several young people, including Zachary Love of Alford and the RRSYP.

Love, who raps locally under the pseudonym of "Son of Sam," said he is usually a free-form rapper. Writing a rap song, he admitted, was difficult.

"I didn't realize how hard it would be," he laughed. "I usually improvise on stage. This was tough."

Wray Gunn, of the Interfaith Committee of Southern Berkshire, co-ordinated the Free Will Offering -- twice.

Gunn put out a call for donations to benefit Multicultural BRIDGE, Music in Common, the Railroad Street Youth Project and Construct, Inc. The first round netted $1,100. Gunn was not impressed and sent the collection plates out again. "Now, don't be shy," he said good-naturedly. "Let's give what we can."

The second pass netted another $600, for $1,700, and Gunn was satisfied.

-- Derek Gentile

King's spirit alive at BCC

In Pittsfield, Berkshire Community College embraced the spirit of the holiday with the school's first Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

About two dozen BCC employees and students gathered to feed about 85 people at the First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield. State Sen. Benjamin Downing also helped out with the preparations.

BCC volunteers and young children from Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox made about 50 scarves that adorned the necks of a grateful group who enjoyed the free meal. Those from BCC served the hot meals, while those from Trinity Church sang. Some BCC students played board games with those who came out.

The Multi-Cultural Club, which included members born in Columbia, Guatemala and the Ukraine, turned out in force.

"These are universal ideas," said Eleanore Velez, who helped organize the event on behalf of the college's Diversity Committee. "He's a leader that transcends borders and time."

BCC student Kimberly Figueroa, 22, said she had never heard of the civil rights leader when she first came to the U.S. three years ago. She would learn about him through a portrait that her father owned of the civil rights leader.

She asked who he was and her father explained. When called on to volunteer, Figueroa stepped up.

"I didn't want to stay at my house sitting in my pajamas all day," Figueroa said. "I wanted to do something that makes me feel good."

Despite a busy schedule, Esperance Behanzin also found time to volunteer on Monday. Behanzin was born in the country of Benin in Africa where she would learn about King.

By day's end, the 24-year-old would be moving into a dorm room and readying for classes at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But first she had a more important priority to take care of -- like serving a meal to those in need.

"It's a day to make a change and try something new and do something for those in need," Behanzin said.

-- John Sakata