New London — Four years ago, President Barack Obama put out a call for a National Day of Service in conjunction with his inauguration and to honor Martin Luther King Day.
This year, with Obama's second inauguration falling on Martin Luther King Day itself, the president asked supporters nationwide to make Saturday the day of service.
Michelle Allen, a strong Obama supporter and organizer of numerous service events in New London during the past several years, took the message to heart Saturday with a day-long "Backpacks with Healthy Snacks" collection drive at the Madry Temple Church on Manwaring Street.
Allen stood in the parking lot waving a small American flag and greeting donors cheerfully. She offered juice and snacks and a large poster board for participants to sign well-wishes for victims of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
Walt and Tita Williams of New London arrived late Saturday morning with an "Angry Birds" backpack full of healthy goodies.
"Angry Birds? What's that?" Allen said, shaking her head when Tita Williams described the video game craze.
"You don't want to get started," Tita Williams said.
The stuffed Angry Birds backpack was handed up to volunteer Greg McCormack in the Gemma Moran United Way Labor Food Center truck parked at the church. By mid-day, nearly 20 backpacks — mostly large and sturdy — lay in the huge cardboard box.
Additional donations that didn't fit in backpacks — half-gallon cartons of orange juice, cases of juice box packs and even some non-healthy snacks — will be donated to the food center for distribution to local food pantries, McCormack said.
McCormack, community service coordinator for New London Alternative Incarceration Center, and Marvin Cruz of the Norwich AIC, volunteer at the food center on Saturdays and jumped at the chance to participate in Allen's unique food drive Saturday.
McCormack said a mid-January food drive is a good idea, because people tend to forget about food donations after the holidays. "You can hear an echo in there sometimes," he said of the food center warehouse in the dead of winter.
Allen isn't sure yet where the backpacks will be distributed. Since she announced the drive, five families contacted her with requests to receive backpacks, she said. After honoring those requests, she likely will choose local agencies to receive and distribute the items.
Ricardo Ochoa of Niantic arrived at mid-day with a backpack to add to the collection. He learned of the backpack collection from the president's inauguration website, which lists events throughout the country.
The New London event was one of only a few in eastern Connecticut, while the Westerly Area Rest Meals sponsored a community meal and asked volunteers to help spruce up the center Saturday.
"It's a great idea to have a national Day of Service," Ochoa said. "I find some of the conversations going on today about not taking care of the needy and weaker people to be uncalled for," he said. "I think we should chip in the best we can."
Ochoa wondered aloud why a National Day of Service would be limited to once in four years.
Allen quickly agreed and said she might take on the challenge of organizing an annual event during the weekend before Martin Luther King Day. She said next year's event could be a coat and winter apparel collection.
"That's a great idea," she told Ochoa. "I'm going to work on that."