A day of difference: New America School students volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Miranda Cyr

Las Cruces Sun-News

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LAS CRUCES – The New America School is back to hands-on volunteering on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — an annual tradition that was semi-interrupted last year due to the pandemic.

Rather than taking the day off, staff and students of the New America Charter High School spend the morning of MLK Day on service work to give back to the community.

This year, students had four options to choose from: volunteering at El Caldito Soup Kitchen, preparing food at Las Cruces Gospel Rescue Mission, pulling weeds around Community of Hope or picking up trash along Highway 70.

“I think the students were happy,” said New America School Principal and Superintendent Margarita Leza Porter.

She added that around 60 students and staff members participated on Monday.

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The charter school has about 200 students enrolled, offering daytime classes for high school students and nighttime classes for adults 21 years old and younger.

“We acknowledge it as a day of difference,” said ninth-grader Cinthia Razo-Gonzalez. “Not only did we acknowledge that it was a day of difference, we also made a difference in our community. Whether that be helping out the shelters, organizing shelves, making food or cleaning up trash, we made a small difference that day.”

On Monday morning, Cinthia spent two-and-a-half hours along Highway 70 near Organ Mountain High with a dozen other volunteers.

Porter estimated that the volunteers filled about 50 bags of trash in that short time.

“I love helping out my community,” Cinthia said. “It always feels good when you’re doing something that will make a difference, even if it’s small.”

Carrying on a legacy

Because Cinthia is a freshman, she had no idea this was a New America School tradition, but siblings Quinten and Shastine Baney — both seniors — have participated for the past two years.

Although there were some socially distanced volunteer options in 2021, like picking up trash in your neighborhood or writing a thank-you letter to a healthcare worker, it wasn’t quite the same.

“It just feels nicer to do actual community service with your peers,” Shastine, 19, said. “Honestly, I had forgotten how nice community service was. I remember a part of me was all like, ‘Oh, do I really want to show up? I kind of just want to take the day to rest.’ But I went, I had a really good time with my fellow peers, and it just feels nice to help other people out, especially those in need.”

Shastine spent her Monday morning at the Gospel Rescue Mission, where she prepared sandwiches, while her brother volunteered at El Caldito where he cleaned up the yard.

“The homeless people were sitting there and it was nice to have them out,” Quinten, 20, said. “They said thank you afterwards, and it was really fun. I’m glad we got to (volunteer).”

Honoring Dr. King

While the majority of students in New Mexico and the nation enjoyed a day off on Monday, the New America School uses MLK Day as an opportunity to honor King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Quinten said he learned more about King this year than he had before. He said his passion for education and the level of education he accomplished at a young age was especially inspiring. King earned his first bachelor’s degree at age 19 and his doctorate at 25. Quinten said he too wants to earn his doctorate degree.

King was a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement, fighting against racial inequality. The students learn about King before their volunteer work.

“He was very selfless,” Shastine said. “He did all this stuff for equal rights. He did all this stuff to just help people because he was a good person. So I think it’s good if we help people as well, especially those in need like he did.”

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After volunteering in the morning, the students returned to the school to watch Marshall, a 2017 film starring Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad that depicts a 1940 criminal case, accusing a Black man of raping a white woman. The movie tackles the topic of wrongful accusations and the criminalization of Black men.

The students at the New America School said the movie was powerful.

“Even though African Americans were faced with large challenges, they still just fought to overcome most of them and just sacrificed a lot to get their words heard,” said senior Leslie Acosta.

The students look forward to volunteering more in the future and learning more about King and the Civil Rights Movement.

“I never did anything like this before, so I think it’s a new experience for me,” said junior Brissa Galvan, who volunteered for the first time this year. “I feel excited to do this again.”

“It gives me a great outlook,” Leslie said. “It brings us closer as a school, too.”

Miranda Cyr, a Report for America corps member, can be reached at mcyr@lcsun-news.com or @mirandabcyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at https://bit.ly/LCSNRFA.