By: Sarah LeBlanc
Haley Barbour, a senior politics and international relations double major, wasn’t sure what to expect as she walked from the Georgia Ave.-Petworth metro station past coffee shops and cafés toward a school that serves a diverse and urban community. But Haley’s no stranger to volunteering. From Kansas City, Missouri, she regularly volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters and volunteers annually on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so this was the first in several years she hadn’t been serving in her home state.
Including students from the Washington Center, which provided volunteer opportunities across the city, over a thousand community members filled the Roosevelt Senior High auditorium by promo 9 a.m., waiting to get started on the school projects they selected. Activities ranged from tasks like sandbox building to the slightly more relaxing country flag painting. For Haley, a high point of the day came early, with a keynote address by Secretary of Education John King Jr. She was also surprised to get to see D.C.’s Mayor Bowser, who pledged to continue her work for the city’s children.
Haley signed up for painting peace doves, which meant she walked over to Powell Elementary, just about a block away from Roosevelt Senior High School.
“I was very touched by the symbolism of painting peace doves on Martin Luther King Jr. Day – especially after the guest speakers and the keynote really drew some larger themes about the importance of service, especially going forward the next couple years,” Barbour said.
Haley’s first steps into Powell revealed signs of renovation – pale, blank canvasses of walls and chipping door frames. But as she made her way into the main area, the light that filtered in through second-story windows shown on volunteers taping a pattern onto the steep stairs leading to the upper level, onto the backs of men and women, millennials and older generations painting and sketching murals along the hallways, writing bilingual terms and inspirational messages to lend hope to the children who walk the corridors.
“I haven’t thought about service the way we did it, when going into a newly renovated school,” Barbour said. “Our service was beautifying the space, making it a more fun and colorful learning environment for elementary school kids and I didn’t think about how important that is.”
The community surrounding Powell Elementary was different from the one Haley grew up in, and she enjoyed the chance to be a part of one step of its revitalization. At Powell, 99 percent of students qualify for free lunches, and 97 percent of the student body belongs to a minority group. While the schools are being beautified inside and out, the gradual elevating of rent prices and a more gentrified population have been coupled with a substantial rise in gun crimes, up 34 percent from 2014. But for the children of Petworth, school is a place that protects them from harm and encourages them to develop knowledge as a tool for growth.
In helping beautify Powell Elementary and working on a project that promotes peace at a young age. In a generation growing up knowing nothing but a post-9/11 America, creating a legacy of peace is something that, when fostered at a young age, can provide children with the motivation to find a solution outside of violent conflict, and to know that strength lies not just in the body, but in the mind.