It's fair to say that most of the activities at the Eighth Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Caring Community Carnival 2009 didn't appear to have much to do with the legacy of the civil-rights leader or the struggle for racial equality. Still, said organizers of the Jan. 18 program at the Haverford School, the event had everything to do with the spirit of King's teachings because it emphasized community service and bridging differences between people.
The program this year sought to offer children with all sorts of developmental disabilities a day of entertainment that would also serve as a lesson to teen volunteers about what it means to relate to someone who seems vastly different from yourself.
More than 200 teenagers were paired up with youths and families affiliated with Variety: The Children's Charity, which serves those with a range of disabilities.
Many of the volunteers were affiliated with Jewish groups, such as the Jewish Community High School at Gratz College, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, Habononim Dror North America and North American Federation of Temple Youth.
During the opening ceremony, Christine Rouse, executive director of two nonprofits — Acting Without Boundaries and Kids Are Kids — spoke about what it's like to live with cerebral palsy.
"I am just like you. I went to regular school and college," said Rouse, a graduate of St. Joseph's University. She instructed the teens to get to know their partners for the day "for what they are on the inside, not for what they are on the outside."
Sarah Goldberg, a 16-year-old Harriton High School student who helped organize the event and recruit volunteers, said that her peers had been given basic sensitivity training, and were told to play and interact with the children as naturally as possible.
"Today is about bridging the gaps between all these different communities," said Goldberg, one of about 20 volunteers at the event from the Satell Teen Fellowship for Leadership and Social Action, which is affiliated with Gratz.
Sydney Shuster, 16, also a Satell fellow, spent several hours with 12-year-old Jonathan Garcia, going from booth to booth.
Shuster, who is a teen member of the Jewish Children's Folkshul, has volunteered for several years and always felt like she was helping to brighten a kid's day.
The program ran into a problem this year — one it's faced before in its eight-year history; it happened to fall at the same time as a Philadelphia Eagles playoff game. Students believed that the scheduling conflict probably led to a lower turnout. Still, it didn't dissuade 18-year-old Eric Goldstein, who attends the Gratz High School branch at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.
He showed his support by sporting a Donovan McNabb jersey beneath his volunteer T-shirt.
In the end, organizers brought out a TV and a crowd soon clustered by it to cheer on the birds in a game they eventually lost.
Goldstein said that he taped the game and planned to watch it later; after all, he was there for a loftier purpose.