A group of teenage boys stood around a saw, admiring its shiny blade and examining various tools that sat on the table.
But Tom Fereday, leader of the nondenominational Fearless Mission Team, had another idea. “Hey guys, why aren’t we putting in another post?” he asked, as he knelt near the beginnings of a wooden wheelchair ramp.
The boys had been busy chatting — but only because they ran out of cement, they said.
There was no time to lose on Monday. The roughly 20 Fearless Mission Team members and other volunteers were using their Martin Luther King Jr. holiday from school and work to build a wheelchair ramp in front of the Walnut Street house where 78-year-old Willie Mae Bennett has lived for 30 years.
Bennett, a widow and former seamstress at Godchaux’s Department Store, applied for help through Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge, which helps elderly people by making repairs to their homes.
That work is particularly critical in Bennett’s case, said Rebuilding Together Executive Director Chris Andrews. She lives in the same block where Baton Rouge’s first murder of 2015 took place.
“We thought in light of that horrific event, this may be a wonderful antidote to what is otherwise a silly and senseless tragedy,” Andrews said. “When we can help these longtime residents of neighborhoods be there and stay there, it brings solidity and stability to the neighborhood.”
Fearless Mission Team member Will Johnson, 17, said serving the community is important on MLK Jr. Day, which honors a civil rights leader who brought people together and changed lives.
“We’re all one and should help out,” he said.
Johnson and his friends dug holes and helped set posts in them. Contractor Jimmy Walters, a Rebuilding Together board member, was pouring water into quick concrete mix one minute, and the next, nailing posts at the top of the front steps in place.
Walters said he’s worked on volunteer projects like this one since 2000 and has been involved with Rebuilding Together for three years.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” he said. “We help people who want to live in their home for the rest of their life. Many of them have lived in the same home for 20, 30 years. We make it safe for them.”
Around the corner, Myahoni Whaley was scraping grayish-green paint off the house with her little sister and two cousins. Rebuilding Together will return next month to paint the house.
Whaley said she searched online to find a service event for MLK Jr. Day. Growing up, she went with her mother on the holiday to clean up the Sweet Olive Cemetery.
“Just volunteering — that’s how Mom raised us up,” Whaley said.
A few streets away, red-vested City Year members surrounded the Magnolia Cemetery, scraping and sanding paint from the iron fence so it could be repainted.
“We want to make sure this is an attractive place,” said Verdie Batiste, a managing director with City Year. “It’s so families have a place to come that’s neat.”
The historic cemetery, bordered by a faded fence that is rusted and bent in spots, looks about like it always has, but it needs attention, said Tonja Blair, a Junior League member. She was born and raised three blocks away on America Street and attends Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church across the street.
“I always passed it and noticed it,” Blair said as she pulled on a pair of gloves. “We called it the soldiers’ cemetery. … It hit at home. It’s a historic site.”
Most volunteers were cleaning dirt and old paint from the fence, but a few were inside picking up trash lying near old tombstones in the shade of huge oak trees.
Baton Rouge Magnet High School students Malachi Pursley, 17, and Jacqui Scalzo, 18, came to do service hours for Interact Club, the high school branch of the Rotary Club.
“It’s important to give back instead of sitting at home and doing nothing,” Pursley said. “It’s a perfect day because there’s no school and you can spend the majority of the day giving back.”
For Scalzo, that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. Day is about.
“He wanted to give back to his community and save his people, so we should do the same thing,” she said.