By Donald Wittkowski
Suzanne Pelkaus and Ingrid Hickman were out on a frigid Monday morning, lugging around two large trash bags filled with discarded bottles, cans, plastic, Styrofoam and other litter they had picked up from the marshlands near the Ocean City Humane Society.
Both women, members of Ocean City’s chapter of the AARP, could have spent the morning lounging around the house or enjoying a leisurely breakfast. But they felt it was their civic duty to help clean up the local community to honor the legacy of a man whose name brought tears to Hickman’s eyes.
“Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my top people in the entire world,” Hickman said, her voice choking with emotion. “We wanted to do something to honor a wonderful man who worked so hard to make life better for everybody.”
Throughout Ocean City, volunteers of all ages were cleaning up playgrounds, environmentally sensitive marshlands, a bird sanctuary, the land around City Hall and other locations to show their communitywide spirit on the national holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.
“It’s the least we could do to honor his memory,” said Hickman, a retired social worker who lives in Ocean City. “He wanted to end racial inequality in a nonviolent way. He cared about everybody.”
Pelkaus, bundled up for protection from the cold, crouched low underneath the bushes and trees ringing the marshlands to grab a white, Styrofoam food container that had been tossed out. She said she was surprised by all the litter she had found throughout the morning.
“I certainly believe there is a need for trash cleanup,” said Pelkaus, a retired Cape May County healthcare supervisor who lives in Upper Township.
Altogether, 76 local volunteers fanned out across the city for the annual King Day cleanup. Among them were 10 members of the Ocean City High School Student Council. They collected a few pounds of litter – filling nine trash bags in the process – from a baseball field and the marshlands along 34th Street.
Matthew Edwards, a high school senior, noted that it was important for the students to help out during the holiday in whatever way they could, even if that meant going out and simply picking up some trash.
“Part of the reason for being in the Student Council is that not only do we want to be involved with the students, staff and faculty, but we also want to serve the community,” Edwards said.
Nora Faverzani, a high school sophomore, said it would have been tempting to sleep late or hang out with her friends during her day off from school, but she wanted to do something more productive to mark the holiday.
“It was important to be able to help out during the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Faverzani said.
The cleanup was the second event in Ocean City over the holiday weekend to celebrate the legacy and life of King. On Saturday, hundreds of local residents and dignitaries gathered in the Ocean City High School’s Hughes Performing Arts Center for an afternoon of gospel songs, prayers and speeches.
About 10 years ago, Councilman Keith Hartzell collaborated with the city, Shiloh Baptist Church and the Macedonia United Methodist Church to organize the King Day cleanup and a traditional soul food lunch that follows. Hartzell explained that participation in the King Day services was low in those days, so he wanted to generate more community involvement by having volunteers help beautify the city in King’s honor.
Hartzell noted 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.
Recalling his boyhood, he said he never witnessed any racial bigotry while living in racially diverse Hawaii, where his late father, Paul, worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I really didn’t ever see any prejudice until I moved to the East Coast when I was 11,” he said. “I didn’t understand it.”