The Wash
More than 10 children gathered at Raymond Park in Columbia Heights on a recent Saturday morning. The clean up was hosted by the DC Baha'i community. The children were split into groups, with each group cleaning one part of the park as part of the Baha'i service day. (Kahindo Musungira / The Wash)

More than just park cleanup: CoHi religious group emphasizes importance of service

A park cleanup day in Columbia Heights led by the Baha’i Institute reminds community members of the importance and need for service.

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 Hernandez picks up trash while her mother cleans up with her younger sister. She said she has learned to enjoy service. (Kahindo Musungira / The Wash)

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.

Nadia Hernandez wears gloves and holds a trash bag before the clean up starts. Hernandez said she likes Columbia Heights because she is able to meet neighbors while doing these clean ups. She also said it was nice to have her three children learning about service at a young age.(Kahindo Musungira / The Wash)

“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.

Youth and animators, what the Baha’i Institute calls instructors, created drawings after the park was cleaned. Half of the kids went back to the Baha’i Institute house after the cleanup to escape the cold, while the other half played soccer at the park. (Kahindo Musungira / The Wash)

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.

Five-year-old Pablo Challan plays in the park after the cleanup. Challan’s family just moved to Columbia Heights and this was his first service day with the group. (Kahindo Musungira / The Wash)

“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.

April Hernandez plays at the playground after Raymond Park was cleaned. April is one of the regulars at the Baha’i Institute’s childrens class. Her two siblings are in the junior youth classes. (Kahindo Musungira / The Wash)

“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.

Kahindo Musungira

I am a broadcast and storytelling journalist earning my master’s at American University. I am interested in covering equity and social justice issues.

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