A different kind of service call: Volunteering

Justin Romeo clears weeds at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Last year, 75,747 volunteers pitched in at 665 projects around the country.
Justin Romeo clears weeds at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Last year, 75,747 volunteers pitched in at 665 projects around the country. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 29, 2013

On a path pocked with potholes and strewn with hacked and chainsawed brush, Bill and Stephanie Mink scanned their list of names.

Bill's grandparents and great-grandparents had already been crossed off, their graves found in a well-kept section of Mount Moriah Cemetery. The rest of the Minks, more than a dozen of them, could be anywhere in the sprawling, 200-acre cemetery just off Cobbs Creek Parkway, in Southwest Philadelphia, their gravestones choked by weeds like so many plots in the 158-year-old burial ground.

But finding their relatives' resting places was a secondary concern Saturday afternoon. Along with about 150 volunteers, the Minks and their cousin Howard Allen were at Mount Moriah to participate in one of 12 volunteer projects around the city as part of Comcast's annual Comcast Cares Day.

Comcast, with about 130,000 employees and more than $100 billion in stock-market capitalization, calls the event the nation's largest single day of corporate service, and it has grown wildly - as Comcast has - over the last dozen years.

Slightly more than 6,000 employees volunteered for 108 projects in its first year in 2001. Last year, 75,747 volunteers painted, cleaned, and landscaped on 665 projects around the country.

Employees aren't required to volunteer but are strongly encouraged, and they can bring family members and friends. Projects stretched across the region, from landscaping at YMCAs in Bucks County to cleaning up a park in Camden to mural painting in South Philadelphia.

On South Third Street, 250 volunteers descended on Furness High School, one of the city's most diverse, to repaint peeling fences, scrub classrooms, and work on a mural displaying flags from each of the 22 countries that the students' families come from.

Suzanne Roberts, the wife of Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, daubed blue paint into a corner of the Furness mural Saturday afternoon.

"My husband couldn't make it, and I said I wouldn't think of not going," she said.

Outside, Eagles safety Colt Anderson, wearing a team jersey, painted fences and chatted amiably about the team's draft picks with other volunteers while they planted flowers by the front door.

Furness principal Daniel Peou, who fled to the United States from Cambodia as a child and attended Furness himself, said the school was in serious disrepair, with a roof so leaky, officials were forced to close off the fourth floor.

Still, the 600-student school is a tight-knit community, with employees who were working at Furness when Peou was a student in the 1980s still on staff, he said. He hopes Saturday's project, plus a combined $10,000 grant from Comcast and the NFL Network, will help boost morale at the 100-year-old school.

Across town at Mount Moriah, the Minks climbed mausoleums to snip at tendrils of poison ivy. They have been participating since 2002 and figured they could use the day to help clean up a cemetery in severe disrepair while keeping their eyes peeled for relatives. They found the first graves early in the day, when Allen spotted a mausoleum that looked familiar.

"I came here with my mother in 1993, and I had a feeling [the graves] would be there," he said. "We were just happy to see the stone was still standing - that was a big fear."

The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, a preservation group, has close ties to veterans' organizations in the area and reached out to a Comcast veterans' network about being included in this year's project. With the disrepair, Friends of Mount Moriah president Paulette Rhone said the group was grateful for the help. On Saturday, teams across the cemetery snipped brush, chainsawed trees, and mowed grass around overgrown plots. A full cleanup might take months, but it was a start.

Next to a tilting obelisk-like headstone, Lem Cox, an Army veteran, watched as a fellow volunteer used a chainsaw on a particularly thorny patch of brush. He wasn't a Comcast employee but had heard about the opportunity to help clean a veterans' cemetery - Mount Moriah is home to thousands of veterans' graves, Rhone said - and donned a bright green Comcast Cares shirt to pitch in.

The heat didn't bother him, and neither did the poison ivy. "I can roll around in that stuff," he said, laughing.

"I'm doing this so hopefully someone will clean my grave off when I need it," he said.


Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 610-313-8112, awhelan@philly.com, or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

Inquirer staff writer Bob Fernandez contributed to this article.

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