Volunteers honor Martin Luther King Jr. by beautifying South L.A. schools

Volunteers honor Martin Luther King Jr. by beautifying South L.A. schools
At Woodcrest Elementary in South L.A. on Monday, volunteers painted colorful murals, cleaned classrooms, planted a garden and refurnished weathered benches. (Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)

School was out Monday for 8-year-old Charlevoix Torrence, but the second-grader spent the day cleaning and painting a campus that was not his own in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Where they go to school, not everybody has the landscaping they do," said his mother, Evette Torrence of Pasadena. She said her son's school is open — no barbed wire fences — with a community garden and bright colors.


"That's what Martin Luther King was all about — humanity, equality and people being on the same playing field."

For most Americans, the third Monday of January marks a day off from work or school to commemorate the birthday of the slain civil rights leader. But across the nation, a growing number of people have chosen to honor King through community service.

This year, so many volunteers signed up to help beautify a South L.A. elementary school that organizers added a second school. More than 1,500 showed up to honor the spirit and legacy of King by revitalizing the campuses of Woodcrest Elementary and George Washington Preparatory schools. Among them were NBA Hall of Famer James Worthy, actor-director Roger Guenveur Smith and "Straight Outta Compton" actor O'Shea Jackson Jr.

"We're celebrating the man, but we're also celebrating the ideas that he stood for: service and doing something for somebody other than ourselves," said Bob L. Johnson, chairman of L.A. Works, a volunteer network that coordinated the event.



Jan. 19, 12 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to L.A. Works as L.A. Words.


Later in the day, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pulled a blue T-shirt over his white button-down and grabbed a power tool. He drilled nails into stained wood, working with other volunteers to construct a park bench. In Washington, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama planted a community garden at an elementary school where many students come from military families.

At Woodcrest, volunteers painted colorful murals, cleaned classrooms, planted a garden and refurbished weathered benches.

Eleven-year-old Joshua King stood on tipped toes as he weaved plastic slats through the chain-link fence that stretched high above him. The strips added much-needed color to the drab surroundings and privacy from prying eyes.

"I want my children to see the difference they can make on all levels," said Monica Batts-King of Baldwin Hills. "There are less fortunate people out there. I'm surprised at what the school does not have."

Like most schools in L.A., Woodcrest is surrounded by metal bars and fences, giving it the feeling of being closed off and prison-like, some volunteers said. Batts-King said she hopes the improvement will brighten up the space and make it more conducive to learning.


"If you change your outlook, you can change your outcome," Torrence said.

Susan Olsen and three other families have turned the event into an annual tradition.

"We want our kids to be a part of something bigger than themselves on a day like this," said Olsen, 46, of Brentwood. Nearby, her 4-year-old son repeatedly stroked the same spot on a park bench with lime green paint.

Brenda Gallow, who came to volunteer with a group of co-workers from Kaiser Permanente, said that it felt good to see so many people out and giving back.

"This shouldn't be just one day," Gallow said. "It should be all the time."

Twitter: @AngelJennings