By John Olson
The sun shone down on volunteers in Maritime Heritage Park as they slipped on gloves and got their boots dirty for Bellingham’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service.
Over 300 volunteers showed up to pick weeds, plant trees and help improve the bank of Whatcom Creek on Monday, Jan. 21.
This event, put on by the Parks Volunteer Program, Public Works Department and Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, had another reason for coinciding with the historic holiday, according to parks volunteer coordinator Amy Brown.
“We’re honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision of a beloved community,” Brown said. “This is a day that we can come together and hopefully take some time to reflect on his legacy and his intention and how we can bring that forward into the work that we’re doing.”
Brown said community members experiencing homelessness who use the Maritime Heritage Park are also part of the community and deserve a clean park as much as the rest of Bellingham.
Lighthouse Mission, a nonprofit focused on homelessness in Bellingham, was asked by the parks program to participate in the event as well, according to Elizabeth Pitts, an event intern with Lighthouse Mission. They accepted donations of non-perishable foods and warm winter items.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was active in his community and passionate about his people, and I think we need to find that same passion for our community and give back,” Pitts said.
The social justice efforts of King pushed forward the environmental movement of the time, and thus went hand-in-hand with the volunteers’ work, Brown said.
Community members, Americorp volunteers and those with NSEA worked through the midmorning and early afternoon as part of a continued effort to restore the creek to optimal conditions for salmon.
Americorp volunteer Vilina Sanburn-Bill participated in the event as part of her day of service to Americorp as well as to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she said.
“It’s really cool to come be a part of the long legacy of restoration in making Maritime Heritage Park healthier,” Sanburn-Bill said. “MLK was a spokesperson of love, acceptance and bettering a community while engaging everyone in [it]. If you come out and take part, you are doing something to better our community.”
Other volunteers echoed their motivation for coming out in support of their community.
“There was no women’s march here yesterday, and I felt like I had to do something,” volunteer Amy Becke said. “I believe in community service, and how better to commemorate than on Dr. King’s birthday?”
Brown said that the work these volunteers do in helping the community is also part of a larger restoration project. The plan over the last 20 to 30 years has been to remove invasive species and introduce native ones that provide shade that cool the water for salmon, Brown said.
Brown said that the parks group has come a long way since 2012 when the entire hillside was covered in ivy and blackberries, but there’s still work to be done.
“We’re really grateful to everybody who’s coming out to volunteer. We fortunately live in a community where there’s an incredible ethic of stewardship and volunteerism, and we’re looking to grow that,” Brown said. “I want to find ways to empower our volunteers to really tackle more of these problems happening in parks.”
The next volunteer opportunity is set for Saturday, Jan. 26 and will involve planting native species along Squalicum Creek at the Bay to Baker Trail. Those interested in volunteering can check out the City of Bellingham event page for more information.