By Ryan Haggerty, Chicago Tribune reporter
Chicago Tribune, 1-13-13
Lillie Council and Leah Gipson sat at a small table at Navy Pier's USO office Saturday with stacks of blank postcards and stationery piled between them.
They put pen to paper and wrote notes, one by one, to American troops serving overseas, doing their part to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by participating in the National Day of Service that precedes the federal holiday recognizing him Monday.
"Sometimes when you're away from home, you just need that little bit of comfort from home, even if it's from a stranger," said Council, who said she served in the Army for six years in the 1980s.
"I think it just makes someone's day to know they're appreciated and they're thought of," she said.
Council and Gipson joined volunteers across the country Saturday — including President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama — who donated their time and effort to more than 2,000 public service projects as part of the National Day of Service.
The King holiday has long included a call for Americans to volunteer. But Obama gave the movement new life before his first inauguration four years ago, when he encouraged Americans to honor King's legacy through service.
He and his wife renewed that call this year as they prepared for Obama's public inauguration ceremony Monday.
More than 60 volunteer events were scheduled in the Chicago area Saturday, from the USO letter-writing campaign to a blood drive in Bolingbrook and a project in Grayslake to gather laundry detergent and bagged lunches for people staying at a Lake County homeless shelter.
At the USO event, donated candy, granola bars and trail mix filled a table. More than 100 people were expected to donate goods or write letters to troops by the end of the day, said Chris Miller, director of center operations and volunteer services for the USO of Illinois.
Gipson said she decided to write letters to troops after reflecting on the sacrifices her relatives made. Her father served in the Army in Vietnam, and her brother served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, she said.
"When I'm writing these letters, I picture my dad, I picture my brother, and I think about what they would have needed to hear while they were away from their families and away from home," Gipson said.
In the South Loop neighborhood, about two dozen volunteers scrubbed doors, door frames and window sills at The Studios, a 170-unit affordable housing building at East 18th Street and South Wabash Avenue.
The volunteers cleaned every door in the building so quickly that they soon began spreading out in search of other areas that needed sprucing up.
"I love it," said Maggie McGuire, a member of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church who helped organize the project. "I'm doing it because I believe that decent, affordable housing is a basic right."
Laura Shiplet, another church member, said that volunteering at The Studios made her feel like she's keeping King's legacy alive.
"I want to be part of his dream, especially this weekend," Shiplet said, a bucket of soapy water at her feet. "It's like a big celebration of Martin Luther King's life."