Free labor. For the District's penny-pinching school system, there may be no two sweeter words in the English language.
Hundreds of weed pluckers, wall scrubbers and furniture cleaners donated their time at 20 D.C. public schools yesterday in the system's first-ever Community Volunteer Day.
Among those who took part in the cleanup were students from District and suburban schools, members of the area YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs chapters, and volunteers from the Service For Peace organization. Some participants were from other parts of the United States and abroad.
The event drew just over 1,000 volunteers and saved the District about $400,000 in maintenance expenses, school officials said. At a morning rally at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington, Board of Education member William Lockridge (District 4) told the volunteers that some of the tasks they would be performing might otherwise have been left undone.
"D.C. will appreciate this, because we have a budget crisis and we might not be able to do all the things that you're going to help us to do," Lockridge said.
But fiscal concerns took a back seat during most of the rally. School officials instead made upbeat comments about their efforts to improve District schools and said the army of do-gooders in Eastern's football stadium bleachers symbolized a new era of hope for the system.
At one point, school Superintendent Paul L. Vance -- who came up with the idea of the volunteer day -- told the crowd, "Welcome to what is rapidly becoming one of the best school systems in the United States."
At the rally's conclusion, members of the Shaw Junior High School Summer Band blared their horns as the volunteers dispersed. Many of them grabbed shovels, brooms and rakes as they walked to school buses that would take them to whichever school needed their eager hands. Others stayed to help fix up Eastern.
Kolson Pickard, 13, of Pleasantville, N.Y., headed toward the buses. He walked holding a broom slightly taller than he was. "I think it's great," he said of the cleanup duty in school buildings. Some parts of the city "are really, really dirty, but we can fix that."
Although District schools have been the site of volunteer cleanup efforts before, yesterday marked the first time that D.C. school officials have organized such an event.
Other D.C. government agencies helped coordinate the simultaneous cleanup of the 20 schools. The Department of Public Works, for example, donated the services of 45 employees as well as that of 25 summer youth program workers, said spokeswoman Mary Myers.
District officials said they plan to hold a similar event next year.
Many of yesterday's volunteers were affiliated with Service For Peace, most of them between ages 14 and 23. The District-based volunteer group, active throughout the United States and in 20 other countries, was founded last year by Hyun Jin Moon, son of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
Many of the Service For Peace volunteers are working in the District the entire summer, involved in projects such as tutoring school-age children and serving at soup kitchens.
Marena Tashian, 25, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, said scrubbing the walls of the cafeteria at Walker-Jones Elementary in Northwest was no big deal -- students and faculty members at her school in Russia would always get together and clean at the end of the academic year.
"It's like a responsibility," Tashian said. "I don't know how it is in America."