CHESTER — Groups throughout the city that Martin Luther King Jr. called home for three formative years of his life were out for service projects on the national holiday that bears his name. Chester Housing Authority and New Integration Accommodations continued its reusable bag initiative launched in late 2019 by blanketing city residences with a one-off “Reclaiming Chester’s King” bag, while students at Widener University continued the school’s annual Day of Service initiative.

Roughly 250 volunteers operated out of eight sites to distribute 2,200 reusable bags bearing King’s image Monday morning for the Reclaiming Chester’s King project. Ulysses Slaughter, CHA consultant and co-founder of the New Integrations Accommodations, called the MLK Day event a natural extension of the “Bag It Chester” initiative launched last fall to distribute reusable bags throughout the city.

“Dr. King talked about the three evils of militarism, racism and materialism, and plastic bags are directly resulting from our materialism,” said Slaughter. “This was a great opportunity to draw attention to his ideas around human brotherhood and sustainability and the idea of interconnectedness … in the same way we’ll be annihilated through war, we will be annihilated because we have not cared for the planet.”

“I’m happy to report that Chester today was a magnet for events surround MLK as it should be,” said CHA Executive Director Steven Fischer, noting groups and public officials from around Delaware County were in attendance. “King spent three years of his young life studying here … this holiday, in particular for Delaware County, is Chester’s holiday.”

The distribution concluded with a reflection period and group reading of King’s speeches at the MJ Freed Theater in the 600 block of Avenue of the States. With groups of school children present for the event, Slaughter called the reusable bag initiatives “a small thing but a big difference in the world they will inherit.”

“People were talking about Dr. King’s dream,” he said. “King’s dream was not about him; his dream was for those that would come after him.”

Among the groups participating were Penn State Brandywine, Widener University, CASA Youth Advocates, Family Inc., Chester Made, Salvation Army, Chester Educational Foundation, Providence Meetinghouse, Media Fellowship House, and West Chester Friends School. Event organizers invited the West Chester Friends School students based on their successful campaign to ban single-use plastic bags from West Chester Borough.

Organizers reported no conflicts or other incidents occurred during the distribution to city homes and passing pedestrians. “It makes you believe in the possibility that this won’t be a special event but an everyday occurrence,” Slaughter said of the groups from varying backgrounds collaborating on the project and walking many of the city’s neighborhoods. The West End saw extensive coverage, with Calvary Baptist Church – where King preached during his time at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland – serving as one of the distribution sites.

“Even for those who spend time in Chester, that was a new experience for them – to be on the block, so to speak,” said Slaughter. “Rarely will you see people walk down Third and Flower, Ninth and Lloyd – not the arteries but the capillaries.”

Slaughter hopes the message of “authentic respect and authentic inclusion” will further permeate the city, along with a general recognition of King’s time in Chester as a formative period his later work.

“That’s one of the reasons we called this ‘Reclaiming Chester’s King.’ There’s a way that he gets lost in the world stage and people don’t see the connection to him in Chester. It’s almost like it never happened,” Slaughter said.

“I think one of the greatest failures of Chester leadership is the inability or unwillingness to embrace King in such a way that who he was, what he represented, shows up in the culture of this city,” he said, juxtaposing King’s advocacy of non-violence against the city’s decades-long fight against violent crime.

Physical-therapy students at Widener University got a jump on the holiday with the department’s annual mobility clinic on Friday. Students provided free services such as blood pressure screenings and checks and cleanings on wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, crutches and canes at 12 sites throughout the city.

“They really remember us coming every year … they’re so thankful we come out, even it’s a small amount of time,” said Haily Vaka, a second-year graduate student. This year marked Vaka’s second visit to the Crozer Active Day Center on the Crozer-Chester Medical Center campus, home to the former Crozer Theological Seminary where King studied.

“(King’s) whole thing was equality and we try to provide where we can as P.T. students to the community. Being able to do that and go to a place where he was… gives us another perspective in seeing the community,” Vaka said. “He had a dream and so do all of us.”

The department’s community outreach continues year-round through its pro bono Chester Community Clinic, formerly located at 22nd Street and Providence Avenue and now housed in the former Chester Upland School District Administration building at 17th Street and Melrose Avenue. The department has instituted a primary-patient program, pairing students with a single patient to work with on a long-term basis.

“We’re able to give back to the community members and at the same time they’re giving back to us by helping us learn,” Vaka said. “Just being able to have her as the main person I follow has helped me form relationships with patients.”

Students were out on Monday for the 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Hoops from the Heart in the university gymnasium. Widener’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, allow with peers at Haverford College, Neumann University and Cabrini University, ran the basketball clinic for students grades 1-8 to benefit the Community Action Agency of Delaware County.

“We ask people to bring can goods, non-perishable items to donate to the Community Action Agency; they do a lot of work (getting word) to the local community and that’s how we get the campers here,” said women’s Head Coach Alisa Kintner. According to the university athletic department, the Widener site draws an average of 50 campers from youth basketball clubs and elementary school programs from Chester and its suburbs each year. Since its formation in 2002, the Hoops from the Heart program has raised over $130,000 in registration fees for CAADC across all host sites, alongside the food donations.

“We get a lot of support from our community at our games. The opportunity to give back to them is always fun,” said senior shooting guard Devan Rimmer. “(Charitable work) is something I’ve always loved to do, but being able to do it as a team makes it so much better.”

“(Camp participants) are so excited all the time. Even if it’s like not basketball, just hanging out with them and talking with them – they love it so much, we love it so much,” said senior point guard Madison Ireland, a Garnet Valley High School graduate. A nursing student, the Hoops from the Heart event and another philanthropic work with the team has inspired Ireland to continue with volunteerism into her working years.

“We also participate in the Special Olympics every year in the spring. I love doing that too. After I graduate I’m looking to do something like that,” she said.

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