Occidental Students Help Local Communities in MLK Challenge

Hundreds of Occidental College students, administrators, faculty, alumni, and staff--and community members--cleaned up beaches, weeded community gardens, and provided other forms of sweat equity to more than 20 Los Angeles nonprofit groups Jan. 23 as part of Oxy's first MLK Challenge. 

Armed with gloves, tools, and enthusiasm, the Oxy volunteers converged at various sites throughout the Southland to help community organizations such as Heal the Bay Santa Monica, Proyecto Jardin, and the Door of Hope Community Center, which helps low-income youth and adults build business and life skills.

The volunteers participated in the all-day community-service event to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Occidental is one of a number of colleges nationwide that participated in the challenge, a project that helps "ground civic engagement into the curriculum," President Jonathan Veitch said in his welcome address in Thorne Hall.

Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act in 1994, designating the annual King holiday as a national day of service. The MLK Challenge goes one step further by encouraging participants to create and carry out a plan using teamwork and physical labor.

At Proyecto Jardin, a Boyle Heights community garden in the shadow of the White Memorial Medical Center, about 15 students rolled up their sleeves to pull crab grass and other weeds from the rain-soaked ground, shore up circular stone gardens called caracols ("snails" in Spanish), and clean up Proyecto Jardin's patio roof of ripped netting, old Christmas lights, and plastic shades.

Charlotte Krovoza '13 was one of the students. She said she took part in the MLK Challenge to give back to the community as well as learn more about Los Angeles and get to know other Oxy students better.

"While I'm here, I might as well spend my time wisely," she said, "and the idea of a challenge is very appealing."

Proyecto Jardin project director Irene Pena said she was grateful for the students' help, especially after recent storms pummeled the garden.

"This place looked like a hurricane had hit it," she said. "But I was at ease because I knew [the Oxy students] were coming. If not, I would just have gone home and cried."

Meanwhile, at the Wellness Community-Foothills, a Pasadena nonprofit group that provides cancer education and support, five Oxy students organized and purged some of the agency's old files.

"Although their efforts are not as visible as other volunteer projects, their generous contribution of time and energy saved [us] hundreds of valuable dollars," said Tim Bogle, the nonprofit's operations director.

The College and student leaders worked with the office of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to identify some of the service projects. Two representatives from the mayor's office, Mike Fong and Daniel Andalon, visited some of the sites, and Fong also attended the event's closing ceremony. The ceremony, held at the College's Herrick Interfaith Chapel, featured student speakers, performances by the Oxy Glee Club, and a short film of the day produced by art history and visual arts assistant professor Brody Fox and some of his students.

"We want to encourage students to incorporate service into their everyday lives," said Rev. Susan Young, Oxy's director for religious and spiritual life. "It's our hope that they can see how their beliefs in social justice and community engagement can be transformed into community action."