By Jason Wesseldyk
Plainwell Community Schools were closed on Monday, Jan. 16, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
But rather than taking the day off, a group of 16 high school students who are members of the PHS Multicultural Club opted to have a “day on.”
The group made the short trip to Kalamazoo to take part in a city-wide Day of Service to celebrate King’s life and legacy. In addition to performing various tasks at Grace Covenant Ministries, the students also had the opportunity to participate in a march and attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park.
Maria Johnson, administrative assistant to high school principal Jeremy Wright, serves as advisor to the Multicultural Club. High school hall monitor Larry Ash and PHS foreign language teacher Sarah Boven are the co-advisors.
“We are extremely proud of our students,” Johnson said. “Some of the work was dirty and some of the work required the kids to be outside during the cold, dreary day. But there was not a single complaint about the work that they were doing.
“And not long before the march, the rain started and the temperature dropped. But not even that dampened their spirits. After their experiences, they couldn’t contain their excitement and couldn’t wait to go home and share experience with their families and friends at school.”
At Grace Covenant Ministries, the Plainwell students assisted in cleaning, organizing and doing yard work. They cleaned and scrubbed more than 100 chairs in the sanctuary; organized and cleaned the daycare, storage room, bathrooms, kitchen and food pantry; picked up yard waste and trash; and emptied out garbage from the outside.
Then it was off to the march, where the students met such dignitaries as Kalamazoo mayor David Anderson, Kalamazoo city manager James Ritsema and Western Michigan University president Dr. Edward Montgomery.
Johnson said the day had a big impact on the students.
“The kids agreed they will never be able to pass the church where they worked without remembering the work they did there,” she said. “They also took a lot away from the march and the speeches.
“A few of the things that really hit home were that it is up to our youth to make changes for the better and that one day of sacrifice is not enough to make that change. They all would like to do more activities like this and to participate again next year.”
Johnson was aware of the Day of Service in Kalamazoo from her days as a City of Kalamazoo employee.
“Many of our club members were interested in doing more than just learning about the different cultures,” she said. “After meeting with the group, we discovered that there was a high interest in doing service projects and we thought the Day of Service would be a great opportunity for students to have a day on instead of a day off in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
The PHS Multicultural Club began in 2021 when a student came into the office and opened up about her struggles to read the book “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That gave Johnson the idea to start a club that recognized different cultures at the school.
As someone who interacts with many students on a daily basis as hall monitor, Ash came on board as a co-advisor. Boven followed, coming on board as a co-advisor as a way of piggybacking off her World Cultures class.
The mission statement for the club reads as follows: “The PHS Multicultural Club honors and promotes awareness of cultural diversity in an effort to bring people together toward friendship and a greater understanding of each other’s cultures. A safe place that would celebrate cultural awareness and diversity with the school.”
The club’s goals are: 1. To build close friendships with each other, while sharing cultures with each other. 2. Expand the knowledge that our peers have about one another’s ethnic and cultural backgrounds. 3. Student engagement in authentic conversations about race, and social justice and to feel valued in the school community.
“As a club, we recognize every heritage month by having student presentations, food tastings, field trips, posters in the building and information announcements to the entire student body for awareness,” Johnson said. “The advisors and students are always looking for new events and opportunities. So, as new opportunities come up, we will make group decisions on participation.”
The next planned event for the club is a visit from a retired WMU professor who will speak in honor of Black History Month and a soul-food dinner. The club also plans to attend the International Festival at WMU for the second time, allowing students to enjoy music, food, fashion and traditional dances from various cultures.