Volunteers: We Are Stardust, We Are Muddy

My husband's company had signed up to take part in something called New York Cares. It meant volunteering to clean up a park on the first Saturday in May. When the day rolled around I was surprised to learn how few of his co-workers planned to attend. It seems like everyone's got their Saturday plans these days, their weekend homes and soccer practices, not to mention babies and toddlers not compatible with a city clean-up project.

Our kids are in first grade, so they were gung ho to help. Meanwhile their parents were feeling more oh no than gung ho.

Friday night it poured. Maybe the cleanup will be rained out, my husband and I thought, somewhat hopefully. It had been a long week. We had plans Saturday night. What were we thinking? We don't even live in New York City anymore. How typical of my generation, to talk a good fight and then when the roll is called, be nowhere in sight.

Still, I've always been leery of savior behavior. I didn't want my family to be typecast as the well-to-do do-gooders, the suburbanites come to help out the urbanesque. But lately my husband and I have wanted to start doing something more meaningful with our kids than going to the zoo or the mall or a movie.

Having grown up in the Me-Generation, we can't help but feel it would be swell if our kids could grow up in the We-Generation.

To accomplish this will mean a lot less time on-line and in-line. More hours spent thinking about and doing for others. Neighbor behavior.

And I can wistfully recall a time, not so long ago, when most everyone connected with my husband's company would have shown up at such a Saturday undertaking, guns blazing. After all, we were the kids who grew up listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash singing "We can change the world, rearrange the world ..."

Now too often our thoughts have turned inward. We're over-booked socially and under-fed spiritually. We all have our good excuses, but at the end of the day an excuse is just a reason not to show up.

Saturday came and the weather was right out of the perfect spring morning catalogue. My husband and I loaded up the kids and drove the 15 minutes from our suburb to our assignment - a Harlem senior citizens' park that needed spring cleaning.

There was raking to do, broken glass to pick up, dead leaves to pile, ground to break and turn over. Flowers to be planted. A day's work indeed. The organizers were well organized. We were met with an ample supply of new shovels, rakes, hoes, and dozens of fresh gardening gloves. The woman in charge was gracious and focused. No anxious standing around, no wandering and wondering what to do. The tasks at hand were explained and assigned.

A dozen and a half people had shown up - the young woman at my husband's office who had signed us up, plus two other work place cohorts, and a spouse, as well as other people from other places. One man had come all the way from Brooklyn - Brooklyn to Harlem is about as "you can't get there from here" as it gets.

Someone had brought a boom box and it was pleasantly blasting us with top-40 songs from my childhood - Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the O'Jays.

The park itself was a gem in the midst of flotsam and jetsam, a fauna work of art, assiduously reclaimed by a small group of pragmatic activists determined to make something bigger and better than the usual sound byte on the nightly news. More beautiful, too.

So smack dab in the middle of drug wars and banal urban decay was this park. It was full of trees and it had a gazebo. It was truly a green oasis. Passersby stopped to watch us digging and weeding. They smiled and waved and said thank you. We all agreed there was nothing more satisfying, more unifying than digging in dirt. We all felt blessed to be there.

We were black and white, men and women, young and old, married and single. For the three hours we worked side by side the only colors that mattered were the brown earth, the green leaves, the blue sky. For lunch we were fed the best fried chicken I've ever eaten. It was made by the mother of the woman organizer. We were asked to write thank you letters to the deli man who provided the cold drinks. It was a veritable festival of kind hearts and good manners.

My husband and I had to leave before the project was finished. We stayed longer than some, less long than others. No one made us feel bad about going. People stayed for as long as they could. You were made to feel good just for showing up at all.

Our kids made us promise we'd all come back again next year. We will. As we drove home across the bridge where the polo grounds used to be I thought of another song of my youth - "Woodstock," by Joni Mitchell.

"We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

We're the rich ones alright, just like everyone else that showed up. We got to spend one Saturday in May making new friends, making something beautiful even better. It doesn't get much richer than that.

* Madora McKenzie Kibbe, a regular Monitor contributor, lives in Bronxville, N.Y.

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