Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. through hard work

SUQUAMISH — A group of people who work full-time to better the lives of others didn’t view the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as time off, but rather a chance to continue helping others in a different way.

Volunteers from Americorps and Kitsap Youth In Action and local residents gathered in Suquamish to clear out overgrown bushes and weeds in the cemetery and assist tribal elders.

But the groups didn’t just walk on to the grounds and start raking.

While this is their fourth time clearing the brush from the cemetery, it took some time to build trust, said Russ Donahue, program director for Americorps.

“They wouldn’t let us work in Chief Sealth’s grave (at first) because it’s sacred ground,” Donahue said, noting the group had to work there twice in years past before building up complete trust with the elders. “Anything we do here is with the permission of the tribal elders.”

By lunchtime on Monday, the group had cleared out enough overgrown brush to reveal a dozen or so gravesites. They continued to clear more brush, carefully stepping around the newly exposed marble headstones.

But clearing grass and scotchbroom wasn’t the only project. Another group of volunteers were assisting the elders.

“I do landscaping full-time and it was impressive here,” said Gabriel Wilson, boyfriend of Americorps volunteer Tena McGinniss. “There were so many people and it was so organized.”

Within an hour and a half, a group of 10 people had chopped down a rotten willow tree and cut it up into logs, raked leaves, cleaned windows, cleaned and planted flower beds and cleared out gutters, Wilson said.

Log choppers delivered 11 truckloads of wood to the elders before lunch as well, Donahue added.

“The best way to help your elder is to ask them what they need directly,” said McGinniss, a legal advocate for domestic violence with Americorps and an Ojibway Native American from Michigan. “It’s the native way to take care of them.”

McGinniss talked to the elders and obtained a list of projects for the volunteers to work on. Another philosophy of the project was getting volunteers from the community to join them in helping others.

“Part of what we are doing is inviting others to do the same,” she said.

Aside from the full-time volunteer jobs the Americorps workers do during the week, the program has been taking the extra step the past 10 years with holiday and awareness events, such as Make A Difference Day and National Service Week in the spring.

“It’s doing something positive with a day off,” said Jenna Kreger, a Kitsap Youth in Action volunteer. “Instead of sitting at home, we’re doing something good for the community.”

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