Most teenagers might spend a Saturday morning sleeping in, checking their social media or seeing their friends. Donning rubber gloves, lugging around an oversized trash bag and cleaning up water bottles, not so much.
But 14-year-old Valerie Hernandez isn’t like most teenagers.
Hernandez spent her day off cleaning the Raymond Park in Columbia Heights as part of a service project on a recent, chilly Saturday morning. The cleanup was affiliated with the Baha’i Institute, a religious group that provides opportunities for youth to learn about service.
Valerie is shy and “always on her phone,” her mother, Nadia Hernandez, said. Nadia encouraged her daughter to join the religious group to have her interact more with others.
“In the beginning, I was not a big fan of the classes or the service days,” Valeria Hernandez said. “My mom would force me to attend, but I like them now.”
The Raymond Park cleanup, held on Nov. 27, was the most recent of many service projects held by the Baha’i Institute, which provides classes for all members of the community, regardless of their faith.
The Baha’i Institute, on Quebec Place NW, holds three different types of classes for youth about how to incorporate service into their day-to-day lives. The Baha’i faith teaches that service is the way to heaven.
Nickole Best, the D.C. Baha’i junior youth program director, said youth below the age of 11 learn how to be caring to others through stories of Baha’ u’llah during the classes, those between the ages of 11 and 14 focus on how to make independent decisions that will be of service to the community and those older than 14 talk about all different topics from school, work, job, religion and other service opportunities.
Youth from all three classes, along with their parents, met at the Baha’i Institute House where they used bags and rubber gloves to clean up litter in Raymond Park. The children were paired with adults as they picked bits of paper, discarded wrappers and water bottles.
Although Columbia Heights has other programs where people can volunteer, those who participated in the Saturday cleanup said this program has been more proactive in reaching out. Most of the participants said they found out about the cleanup and the Baha’i youth classes through email.
Nadia Hernandez, who has been a Columbia Heights resident for 10 years, brought Valerie and her two other daughters to the cleanup day. She said she likes meeting neighbors through service days held by the Baha’i Institute.
“I’m trying to teach them about keeping our neighborhood clean so that they can play in a safe place,” Hernandez said.
Nadia Hernandez talks about why it is important to keep her neighborhood clean. Note: this interview was originally conducted in Spanish.
Hernandez is not part of the Baha’i faith but allows her children to attend these Baha’i gatherings because they focus on how children can contribute to society through service.
Younger children, like five-year-old Pablo Challan, said they especially liked the service day because they were able to play games in a clean park after the cleanup.
“I am always bored at home, but today I got to clean and play with my friends,” he said.
One of Nadia Hernadez’s other children, five-year-old April Hernandez, attends the children’s classes and attended the Raymond Park cleanup day. She said she loves art, but also likes when the group does different activities like cleaning up.
“We do not clean up the park every day. I wish I could do it every day, then I will get to play with a lot of people,” April Hernandez said.