By Donald Wittkowski
The 20 students from the Key Club at Egg Harbor Township High School could have taken it easy for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
School was closed, so there may have been the temptation for them to sleep late, hang out with friends and maybe forget about doing anything serious for the day.
But instead, they braved frigid temperatures and fanned out across Ocean City on Monday morning to pick up litter as part of a “Day of Service” nationwide in honor of the slain civil rights leader.
“Instead of doing nothing, it’s better to help out and clean up the community,” said Vanessa Hua, a 17-year-old senior at Egg Harbor Township High School who organized the Key Club students.
Hua explained that Egg Harbor Township didn’t have a community cleanup, so the students decided to come to Ocean City after searching online for King Day events.
Trash bags in hand, some of the students picked up cigarette butts, bottles and other litter from the grounds of the Ocean City Intermediate School.
Despite the bitter weather, about 120 people in all, young and old, volunteered for the Ocean City cleanup to commemorate King’s legacy. It was their way of giving back to the local community.
“We want to make a difference and set an example for our children. We are doing our part,” said Natalie Kraft, of Ocean City.
Bundled up for protection from the cold, Kraft was joined by her daughters, Genna, 14, and Ruby, 6, while cleaning up a playground and athletic fields on Sixth Street, behind the Ocean City Primary School. Kraft noted that she wanted to spruce up the surrounding area because Ruby attends the primary school.
Helping out the Krafts were Ocean City resident Gloria Scarano and her 15-year-old son, Gabe Doughty. In October, Scarano and her son participated in the annual fall cleanup of Ocean City’s beaches organized by the state environmental group Clean Ocean Action.
Genna Kraft was carrying a trash bag filled with litter, while Gabe Doughty was toting another bag crammed with recyclables that had been picked up Monday morning from the grounds surrounding the primary school.
Natalie Kraft said some of the litter was frozen solid in the ice left over from the Jan. 4 blizzard, requiring a good, hard kick to free it.
The cleanup was the second event in Ocean City over the holiday weekend to celebrate King’s life. On Saturday, local residents, church leaders and politicians gathered in the Ocean City High School’s Bill and Nancy Hughes Performing Arts Center for an afternoon of gospel songs, prayers and speeches.
About 10 years ago, Ocean City Councilman Keith Hartzell collaborated with the city, Shiloh Baptist Church and the Macedonia United Methodist Church to organize the King Day cleanup. On Monday, Hartzell and city workers Michael Giannetta and Kevin Gayle posed for a picture next to two trucks containing trash picked up in Ocean City.
“I filled the Seventh Street truck myself, just doing the alleys downtown,” Hartzell said.
During last year’s cleanup, Hartzell stressed that the King Day celebration remains close to his heart because he views it as a way of fighting racism and bringing the community closer together.
Throughout town, the cleanup volunteers beautified schools, playgrounds, environmentally sensitive marshlands, a bird sanctuary, the beaches and other locations to show their communitywide spirit.
Volunteers were given large trash bags and a pair of blue, rubber gloves when they signed up at the Ocean City Community Center. They had the option of choosing a spot they wanted to clean up or having a location assigned to them.
Charlotte Moyer, coordinator of Ocean City’s Clean Community program, said the turnout of about 120 volunteers was good, especially in the cold weather.
“We have quite a few older volunteers, along with young families with children 3 years old and up,” Moyer said.
Susan and John Stauffer, of Ocean City, were in a family group taking part in the cleanup, which has become a tradition for them.
“When MLK Day comes around, this is what we do,” John Stauffer said.
The importance of the holiday was not lost on the Stauffers’ 10-year-old daughter, Rachel. When asked if she knew who King was, she instantly recited his birth date of Jan. 15, 1929, and mentioned his most famous speech from 1963.
“He was the one who gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” she said, drawing nods of approval from her father.