A Welcome place

Southwest resident Welcome Jerde is answering Obama’s call to service

There’s one of those familiar blue Obama lawn signs mounted above Welcome Jerde’s fireplace.

Left over from her inauguration party. She’s not quite ready to take it down.

There’s a 2009 Obama calendar on the kitchen counter. "Words of Hope and Inspiration," it’s called. An Obama sticker on the refrigerator. Obama’s book, "Dreams from My Father," resting on a living-room table. A handmade electoral map from her daughter’s election-night party, each state outline filled with red or blue marker.

The larger symbolism behind the things people collect sometimes has a way of explaining their actions. For Jerde, they also explain her hope. And inspiration. And dreams.

Obama’s campaign and victory kindled new fire in one of her existing passions. So when he called for a national day of service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she acted.

And took the call one step — correction, 11 steps — further.

Jerde, a longtime volunteer and activist, decided she would organize one project a month until the year came to pass. Not for her. For others.

"Even though I’ve been doing service projects for years and years and years, this felt like a time to really push it," she said. "Because the message from the president is that we can all do it. I know I can do it. Now I want to encourage other people to believe the same.

"It may sound cliché, but I believe we can change the world. If you believe that, if you believe you can change the world, then what’s the big deal about thinking up one project a month?"

The January project:

One day early that month Jerde called YouthLink, an organization that serves homeless and at-risk youth. It’s one of her favorite local nonprofits, one she’s volunteered for in the past. She told them she was going to organize a collection on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. She asked them what they needed. They gave her a list.

Indoor clothes and outdoor clothes and job-interview-appropriate clothes. Diapers. Toys. Bedding. School supplies. Toothpaste and deodorant and cookware and backpacks and bus passes.

She e-mailed friends, she posted the collection event online, she worked with her equally active husband, Dan Berg, and 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, to get the word out. Within days she’d received plenty of positive responses.

Still. Jerde knew the potential perils of volunteerism. People are well-intentioned but busy. Distracted. And, these days, no longer spending those few extra dollars on luxury items or impulse buys. 

So she set modest goals. Despite the early enthusiasm, she hoped for a few dozen people, a good table or two full of donations.

Two days before the day, the doorbell rang. And rang. People who didn’t have the actual holiday off from work but had things to give. MLK day came. She had cookies and hot chocolate ready. The doorbell rang. And rang. One person came. Then another. And another. And another.

Soon people were standing outside with bags and bags of donations, shivering in the cold as they waited for the Jerdes to clear extra space in their living room.

"As people came in during the day, they looked around and said, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’" she said. "They were astonished at how broad the support was."

Later that week, Jerde wrote up a report to share with the federal government folks responsible for coordinating the national day of service.

Eighty-five people through her door. Five bags of shoes and boots. Five bags of hats, scarves, and mittens. Two bags of school supplies. Some 336 diapers, 45 bars of soap, hundreds and hundreds of personal care items. And more.

"We were very, very, very, very successful," she said. "YouthLink was totally overwhelmed."

The February project: undefined, but in the works. Same goes for a few other months this year.

Not to say Jerde is idle. She’s planning, scanning newspapers and websites and talking to friends for ideas. She’s not backing down from her pledge.

"Successful events are a continuation of something," she said. "It’s not just a do-it-one-time thing, it’s continuing to show that we can change the world by going out there repeatedly and doing new and different things. And keeping the spirit going."

She wants to make her projects ambitious but not overwhelming. She wants to bring together not only individuals, but families, particularly children.

"To spread the idea that we can all make a difference, that would make this year feel like a success."