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From administering vaccines to cleaning Philly’s streets, ‘This is what MLK Day is all about’

Here's how the region marked the 27th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Ala Stanford, founder and CEO of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, speaks at the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service at Girard College.
Ala Stanford, founder and CEO of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, speaks at the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service at Girard College.Read moreErin Blewett

Deacon Anthony Mullings stood gobsmacked in the middle of Third Street near Somerville Avenue on Monday, astonished by what he saw outside of his Olney church.

“I can’t express how I feel,” he said. “I have never ever seen it like this.”

For the first time in 25 years, the illegal dumping ground at the intersection was gone. There were no more tires, no mattresses, no roof shingles, and no car parts. In just under two hours, nearly 100 people from across the region had worked together to clean the intersection as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service project organized by Terrill Haigler, also known as Ya Fav Trashman.

“This is what MLK Day is all about, this is how you honor his work and his dream,” said Mullings, 64, a deacon at Heart of Worship Recreation Center. “I’m so glad to see young and old, Black and white, a whole mix of people coming together here. That’s what Dr. King’s dream was about.”

From city streets to museums, and from schools to recreation centers, about 85,000 people across the region volunteered for 500 in-person and virtual service projects to honor and advance King’s legacy, according to Todd Bernstein, the founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Now in its 27th year, Philly’s King Day of Service is the oldest and largest in the country. For the 13th year, the signature service project was centered at Girard College, where in 1965 King himself addressed a crowd of civil rights demonstrators protesting what had been the school’s policy of admitting whites only.

At the school Monday, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium conducted free COVID-19 testing; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia offered COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots; voter registration drives were held; and books were given away to children.

Ala Stanford, founder and CEO of the Black Doctors organization, said last weekend marked one year since her group administered its first vaccine in Philadelphia. She said she struggled to get those early vaccines because they were allocated only to “folks who needed it and who were thought would take it.”

“The narrative was that Black and brown people didn’t want to get vaccinated, they were too hesitant, so when the vaccine was rolled out there was none in the community,” said Stanford, who is a surgeon. “So I had to fight for that and advocate to get it behind closed doors.”

Stanford urged those in attendance to talk with people they know who aren’t vaccinated yet.

“Listen first to why. Educate them if there’s been misinformation. Do it more than once because it will take more than once and then go with them to encourage and support them,” she said. “That’s how we get to better days. That’s also service. That’s also action. And each and every one of us can do that.”

Andre Briggs, 54, of West Philly, brought his 7-year-old daughter, Lyric, to Girard College for her first COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’m vaccinated and I wanted to get her vaccinated because of kids in her school catching it. I wanted to protect her,” Briggs said. “And I think it’s good to do it here because everybody’s out celebrating the day.”

At Haigler’s street cleanup in Olney, a DJ spun tunes, canned food and winter coats were given away, and strangers worked together to bag trash and trim out-of-control weeds. Neighborhood resident Cheryl Bedden, 59, stumbled upon the cleanup as it was underway.

“I turned the corner and I was like ‘Wait a minute, there ain’t no block party scheduled!’ Then I seen them bags, and my hip might be hurting but this makes me want to get down,” she said. “This is primo positive!”

Ryley Leonard of Queen Village celebrated her 5th birthday helping to pick up litter at the cleanup. She was moved to do so after her parents, Leigh and Mike, showed her Haigler’s video of kids who were forced to walk on the street to get to school because the sidewalk was blocked by trash.

“She told me ‘We have to clean to keep the kids safe!’” Leigh Leonard said.

Haigler said he chose the site out of more than 15 nominations he’d received from the community because it’s near three schools and the students who walk there deserve better.

“A part of Dr. King’s dream is to have it happen sooner rather than later, and today is sooner,” he said.

Like many, Robert Ricketts, 33, of Germantown, learned about the cleanup on social media. He grew up in Olney and was familiar with the “pit of trash” at Third and Somerville.

“To have this be a safe area for people now, words can’t describe what it means,” he said. “This is the only way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. He’d be proud.”

In fact, King once spoke about excelling at street sweeping during a speech he gave at Barratt Junior High School in South Philly in 1967.

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures …,” King said. “Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”