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MLK Volunteers Lend a Helping Hand



By Anne O'Connor,

Sentinel & Enterprise  

Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 

LEOMINSTER — More than 125 volunteers turned out to help during the Com­munity Builders Martin Luther King Day of Service Challenge on Saturday. They had no idea what to expect.

“These volunteers today were purposely not told what they would be doing or where,” said Scott Bennett the volunteer coordinator with the Community Builders of the United Way of North Central Massachusetts.

Volunteers were told to dress warm and plan to stay for the day, the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer said. After meeting for breakfast at the United Way in Fitchburg the crew traveled on buses to the Leominster Office of Emer­gency Management. The OEM guys were happy to see them coming. “I'm pretty excited about this, what's going to happen,” said Char­lie Coggins, the Leominster OEM director, as the volun­teers arrived.

The department has been in the former Tri Sum potato chip factory for nine years. Gradually, volunteers have been renovating the building for the emergency service that serves communities across the state.

The work is not complete. People come by in their spare time to chip in on whatever needs to be done, construc­tion work, inventory or vehi­cle maintenance, Assistant Director Jim LeBlanc said. Lots of the materials and labor is donated, the Vice President at Fosta-Tek Optics said. Sometimes even contractors he expects to pay will turn around and say “no charge.”

The MLK Challenge will give the ongoing improve­ments a quick boost. Teams of volunteers, from busi­nesses, schools, community centers and even the Air Force, were assigned to tasks in the cavernous building.

Coggins' task list was long. Teams worked on reno­vations;
 painting, drywalling and insulating. Others cleared piles of junk from the basement, still home to the life-sized Tri Sum horse.

Others took inventory, getting all the equipment of one type in the same place is a goal OEM wants to reach.

Other teams stayed in the warmer parts of the building assembling emergency kits and preparing food for the day's volunteers.

Because teams were not assigned tasks in advance, workers found themselves doing things they might not expect. All were free to approach other team leaders if they wanted to change tasks, Bennett said. Doing something new keeps volun­teers interested, he said, “It's a challenge to keep getting volunteers to come back.”

JoAnn Griffin brought two volunteers from the Cen­tral Massachusetts Disaster Animal Response Team. They were going through cages and carriers, preparing to outfit a new trailer pur­chased through a Homeland Security grant. The response trailer will remain in Leominster.

CMDART has responded to the area several times, including the aftermath of the Dec. 2008 ice storm, help­ing with sheltering pets at the Fitchburg library while the shelter at the nearby sen­ior center was open, Griffin said. She and other Ameri­can Red Cross volunteers
 began the animal response team after working with pet owners during disasters. “Several of us just have a heart for pets,” she said.

Three people from the Leominster Spanish Ameri­can Center were clearing out old wood.

Reaching out to others in need helps to teach responsi­bility to youth, said Hendrick Charles, 20, a student at Mount Wachusett Commu­nity College.

Volunteer photographers and videographers roamed the building and grounds. The photos and videos will be used after the event to keep people involved, said Azure Collier, the social marketing director at Constant Contact.

Many volunteers were teenagers and she encour­aged them to post on Face­book and tweet during the day. As she monitored Face­book and Twitter, the volun­teer could see the numbers of people interacting on the sites increasing.

The North Central United Way and the Leominster OEM cover a similar regional service area, said Karin Oliveira, director of the Com­munity Builders at the United Way said. The groups are planning a training room for just-in-time volunteers.

The Community Builders are looking for more contrac­tors to help down the road at Leominster OEM building. Even with all the volunteer hours and enthusiasm “we realize it won't be completely done,” she said.