Volunteers prepare garden beds at Kelly Miller Middle School, Washington, D.C., April 2019.

Volunteers prepare garden beds at Kelly Miller Middle School, Washington, D.C., April 2019.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a day of service.

That’s why around the Washington area on the holiday, you’ll find people cleaning parks, painting recreation centers and sorting donated food.

As King himself said: “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”

He didn’t say the following, but he might well have agreed: Service can take a person down unexpected paths.

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we talk to those who volunteer in more unusual ways — from explaining what’s happening on stage to blind theater-goers to playing grocery store with hospitalized preschoolers.

And we hear from an entrepreneur who created an app to spread a culture of volunteerism among young people, and the message that if you’re not into community service, you’re missing out.

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Janet Carsetti Volunteer Audio Describer, Metropolitan Washington Ear; @WashingtonEar
  • Jasmine Porter Patient Care Volunteer; Children's National Hospital; @ChildrensNatl
  • Darryl Perkins Co-Founder, Broccoli City Festival and Chip'N Impact Technologies; @BroccoliCity


  • 12:26:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Martin Luther King Day, which everyone knows is a holiday to mark the civil rights leader's legacy. But not everyone is aware that it's also a day of service. Officially, Congress, 25 years ago, made it the first federal holiday designated as a day to volunteer. Charged to lead the effort, the Corporation for National and Community Service has adopted the slogan, "Make it a day on, not a day off."

  • 12:26:23

    KOJO NNAMDISo, thousands of people in the Washington region take that charge seriously. They're out today, cleaning up rec centers, sorting donated clothes and delivering meals to shut-ins. It's all valuable and appreciate work, but today, we'd like to focus on volunteers who have made a sustained commitment to service, and in ways that may surprise you.

  • 12:26:41

    KOJO NNAMDIWe'll also talk about new ways to build a culture of volunteerism and one young entrepreneur's app for that. Joining me in studio is Janet Carsetti. Janet Carsetti, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:26:53

    JANET CARSETTIThank you for having me.

  • 12:26:54

    NNAMDIYou describe yourself as an audio describer with Metropolitan Washington Ear. What does an audio describer do?

  • 12:27:03

    CARSETTIAn audio describer goes to one of seven theaters that we work in. We preview plays, and then we are there, in the theater -- depending upon the theater --either in a booth or sitting right in the theater with a feedback mike. And we are describing to a blind audience, an audience of one or 35. It depends. We never know. And we are bringing the theater to them by describing the set, the costuming, and most importantly -- in-between dialogue, never speaking over the dialogue -- but letting people know about the nonverbal action that's part of the theater.

  • 12:27:53

    CARSETTISo, if someone shoots a gun, you and I know who's shot it, but a blind person doesn't. So, we're there to tell them that. Or if something happens and the audience suddenly gasps or does something, blind people don't know why the audience is reacting. So, it's our job to let them know exactly what's happening, every minute.

  • 12:28:19

    NNAMDIHow did you get involved in this, and what other services does Metropolitan Washington Ear provide to the blind?

  • 12:28:24

    CARSETTIWell, they provide a 24/7 radio reading service. And, my husband first, when we both retired, he started reading the Washington Post on the radio for them. And they also have a dial-in service that people can listen to programs 24/7, 365 days a year. And they have a look-up service. And he became aware that they were auditioning people to do audio description. And I've always been a theater lover, and I thought this sounded really neat. So, both of us auditioned, and then we went through a training program. And I've been doing it ever since, for about nine years now.

  • 12:29:13

    NNAMDIHow many theatrical events do you describe a year?

  • 12:29:16

    CARSETTIA year? Well, I'd say probably 12 or so.

  • 12:29:22

    NNAMDICan you give a few examples?

  • 12:29:23

    CARSETTIOh, sure. I just did “Peter Pan” at the Shakespeare Theater, which was really interesting, because of the unusual set and, of course, all the flying around. I've done “Matilda,” where probably the neatest thing was the dance routines that we needed to describe. And, after the show, a blind patron said to me, wow, that was the greatest dancing I've ever seen (laugh).

  • 12:29:55

    CARSETTIOr, a number of years ago at the National Theater, “Donny and Marie Show” and my husband said to me, you're in charge of doing the costuming. And Marie changed her costumes at least 15 times. And I thought I would lose my mind describing every sequin on her dress and her shoes that matched, etcetera. But, afterwards, when we spoke with people who were there listening to the description, two women said to me: you know, we could just see her walking down the stairs, wearing those blue high heels. So, it's extremely rewarding for us to open up a world.

  • 12:30:35

    NNAMDIWhere are you in the theater when you're describing the action, and where are the people listening to you?

  • 12:30:40

    CARSETTIThe people listening are sitting anywhere in the theater. They wear a headset, the same headset that you might wear if you wanted enhanced hearing. Depending on the theater, at Ford's, we're up in the rafters. At the National, we're in a little booth off the mezzanine. And sometimes when there is no booth, we are sitting in the audience, usually in the back, and using a feedback mike and just explaining to people near us what we're doing so that if they do hear us, they're not disturbed by it.

  • 12:31:15

    NNAMDIJanet, what are the dos and don'ts of audio describing?

  • 12:31:18

    CARSETTINever speak over the dialogue. That's really the biggest one. And we describe. We don't interpret. So, because there's so much nonverbal action going on, we probably don't say things like, she looks sad, but rather, her mouth is downturned.

  • 12:31:42

    NNAMDISo, if I go ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, what do you say? Do you say I'm happy, or would that be an interpretation?

  • 12:31:48

    CARSETTINo, because -- well, I wouldn't need to, because they have heard that, and they can interpret that. It's when someone is walking slouched across the stage, or has fallen.

  • 12:32:03

    NNAMDIYou simply have to describe the way the person's walking and not interpret it.

  • 12:32:07

    CARSETTIExactly. Exactly.

  • 12:32:09

    NNAMDIWoo. Before you retired, you ran local and national programs to boost literacy.

  • 12:32:14


  • 12:32:15

    NNAMDICan you compare the satisfaction you got from that work with your current volunteer work?

  • 12:32:19

    CARSETTII can. When I taught someone to read, it was an incredible feeling. I worked with people from six to 60, or older. And they would say, wow, did I just read that? And I'd say, yes, you did. Now, I'm opening up a new world to people who can't see, but they now have an understanding that they might not have had before, and can enjoy the theater. And there are hundreds upon hundreds of people just in our area who use the service, as a result.

  • 12:32:54

    NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Jasmin Porter, a patient care volunteer at Children's National Hospital. Jasmin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:01

    JASMIN PORTERThank you for having me.

  • 12:33:02

    NNAMDIYou are, by profession, a sign language interpreter and some might expect that given that skill you would work as a volunteer with the deaf. But you chose to volunteer in a different way. Exactly what do you do?

  • 12:33:16

    PORTERWell, I do like to volunteer my services when I can for the deaf community but, yes, I also started volunteering at Children's Hospital as a patient care volunteer. And we go and we play with the children who are in the hospital. It might just be for an overnight stay, or it might be for several months at a time or longer. And we go and we try to make their hospital stay just a little bit more enjoyable. We play with them. We can deliver toys. It's a great thing.

  • 12:33:41

    NNAMDI(overlapping) How long have you been doing this and how often do you do it?

  • 12:33:43

    PORTERSo, I have been volunteering for the last year. I'm coming up on my one year of service, I believe. And I go weekly. When I first started, I was coming in twice a week, because I just couldn't get enough of it. But my schedule's made me slow down, unfortunately, but, yes, I come in every week.

  • 12:33:59

    NNAMDIWhy did you decide to be a patient care volunteer, what back in the day used to be known as a candy-striper?

  • 12:34:06

    PORTERSo, I saw a news article about a grandfather who liked to go to the hospital, and he would hold babies. And I thought that was so interesting, and I personally love children. I cannot get enough of children and babies, so I started Googling for a way, like, how can I hold babies? And I found the Children's National program where you can go and you can play with children who are in the hospital. And the patients range from newborns to adult patients who have gone to Children's National their whole lives. So, it's been a really good experience.

  • 12:34:38

    NNAMDIHow do you figure out how to entertain or distract a hospitalized child, or when to leave that child alone?

  • 12:34:45

    PORTERSo, something that they really instill in us when we start volunteering is that it is absolutely the child's choice if they would like a volunteer. Because while the child is -- or the patient is in the hospital, there's so many things that happened to them that they have no control over, tests and conversations with doctors. So, first thing we do is we ask, would you like a volunteer to come? And you can say, play with you if it's a child, or if it's a teenager, obviously, they don't want to play. They might want to talk or play a card game.

  • 12:35:14

    PORTERSo, you really have to adjust it to the individual. But, yeah, so you can ask, would you like to play or would you like someone to talk to? And if they say yes, you can go in and cater what you're doing to the individual person. But if they say no, then it's, great, it was really nice to meet you. Have a nice rest of your day, and leave.

  • 12:35:32

    NNAMDIYou say that one of the most meaningful encounters you've had at the hospital was with a very little boy who wouldn't stop crying. Tell us what happened.

  • 12:35:40

    PORTERYes. So, as a patient care volunteer, we don't only work with the patients. Sometimes we also help with the families. And I was called by a nurse to go into one room, specifically. There was a little boy who had been there, I believe, for a few days, but he'd been crying all day, nonstop. And his mother was very stressed out. It's hard enough to have a small child and take care of them and entertain them all day, but especially when they won't stop crying. She just seemed like she needed a break.

  • 12:36:05

    PORTERSo, I went in and asked her, you know, would you like me to sit with him for a little while? I can talk with him, play with him, give you a break. You can go get coffee or make any phone calls you may need. And she absolutely needed that break. So, she left to make a phone call. And I was sitting with the little guy, and he would not stop crying. So, I went through my repertoire of everything that I could do.

  • 12:36:23

    PORTERI have bubbles. I always carry bubbles on me. That usually gets young, young children to stop crying. He didn't like the bubbles. I talked with him. I tried singing to him. I do not have a great singing voice, but sometimes that works, and he would not stop crying. So, I lifted down the side of the crib just a little bit so I could see him better. There weren't bars in between us. And he just slumped right into me.

  • 12:36:48

    PORTERAnd we have very specific rules. We're not allowed to lift any of the patients, for specific reasons, but we're not allowed to lift them. We're not allowed to walk around with them. But he did lean into me, so a nurse came in and I asked if it'd be okay if I hold him. And so I went to the seat and I had the nurse bring him over to me and put him in my lap. And he just completely slumped into me, stopped crying briefly. And he just really wanted to be held.

  • 12:37:10

    PORTERSo, it was really nice being able to find what he wanted without being able to communicate with him. He just really wanted to be held.

  • 12:37:19

    NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Darryl Perkins. He is a founder of the Broccoli City Festival and Chip'N Impact Technologies. Darryl, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:37:26

    DARRYL PERKINSThank you for having me on this Martin Luther King Day.

  • 12:37:28

    NNAMDIJasmin is a young person who feels a strong desire to serve. This is a responsibility that you're trying to cultivate in thousands of young people with an app. Tell us about Chip'N.

  • 12:37:39

    PERKINSYeah. So, we developed Chip'N a couple years ago. We did a program three years ago with Broccoli City Festival where people were able to earn a ticket to the festival by volunteering. And it was really, really successful. We did over 1,500 volunteers over the course of three months. And we were, like, how can we continue to maintain this energy, continue to mobilize people to projects that matter?

  • 12:38:00

    PERKINSWe bring, you know, 30,000 people together for the festival, and we're thinking, if we can do that, if we can get a fraction of those people to mobilize to projects that matter, that will make a big difference. And we didn't see anything on my phone or using mobile technology that was doing that, something I would use or my friends would use. So, we saw there was a need, and we developed Chip'N, which people were able to find volunteer opportunities, and also then gamifies a volunteer experience, where you're able to earn chips they can spend in an online marketplace and get gift cards and title subscriptions. Just things that you would want, all via volunteering.

  • 12:38:37

    NNAMDISo, you have gamified volunteers. When did you found the company, and how many people have downloaded the app so far?

  • 12:38:44

    PERKINSSo, it's about two years old, and we have about 20,000 downloads, and about 3,000 active users in D.C., New York, in Charlotte. And we're going to start opening up to some other markets pretty soon.

  • 12:38:56

    NNAMDIHow do you know that volunteers who sign up through the app have actually shown up to volunteer?

  • 12:39:02

    PERKINSSo, one of the features in the app is it geo-locates you when you get to the volunteer opportunity, and then you're able to check in. And if you're out of the location area, you're not able to check in. So, we're able to verify that people showed up. And then, on the backend, we can also then see what was done at the volunteer experience. So, say you did, you know, a trash cleanup, we can see how many bags of trash were picked up. And so we have some metrics, so we can quantify what actually happened.

  • 12:39:30

    NNAMDISo, what are some of the volunteer opportunities you have offered on Chip'N?

  • 12:39:34

    PERKINSOh, we've had a lot of varying things. We do a lot with urban agriculture, and so we do a lot of work with community farms and community gardens, as well as mentoring programs. Community cleanups we do very often. Reading programs in different schools, so just really a wide array of volunteer opportunities. And you're also able to, like, go to panels and things that are just educational and positive. We also help mobilize people, too.

  • 12:40:02

    NNAMDIHere is Alex in Washington, D.C. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:07

    ALEXHi. Yes, I work -- or I volunteer with an international vegan advocacy group called Challenge 22 Plus. But I think it's really unique in that we're entirely run over Facebook. So, people who are interested in changing their diet and adopting a vegan lifestyle and world view, learning more about nutrition, animal rights, feminism, other advocacy issues tied in with veganism can sign up to be placed in a Facebook page with hundreds of other people who also want to go through this challenge.

  • 12:40:42

    ALEXAnd I am an experienced vegan mentor. I've been vegan for about four years, so I work with people for the duration of the 22-day challenge to educate them, help them find recipes and support and local organizations that they can volunteer in.

  • 12:41:00

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for sharing that with us. Got to move on to Cecil in Washington, D.C. Cecil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:09

    CECILOkay. How you doing, Kojo?

  • 12:41:11

    NNAMDIDoing well.

  • 12:41:11

    CECILI used to drive a taxi in Washington, D.C. And, you know, my taxi was, like, (unintelligible). I used to volunteer at the (unintelligible) and, you know, different places. And I used to give, like, free rides to those who could not afford. And beside this, I have a book that I dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King. And the name of the book is (unintelligible). So, I think it's the only book which has been dedicated to Dr. King.

  • 12:41:47

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. I appreciate the part about giving free rides. Getting back to you, Janet. What are the dos and don'ts of audio describing?

  • 12:41:58

    CARSETTIAh, the dos. Well, to make sure people are totally aware of what the set looks like and costuming. And so, before someone actually is there to see the play, before we start describing, we have a 10 or 15-minute what we describe as program notes that we have prepared in advance and recorded in our studios at the Metropolitan Washington Ear. And they listen to that, and there's a complete description of the set. I could read you some of one of our sets, if you were interested.

  • 12:42:38

    NNAMDIIf it's short.

  • 12:42:39

    CARSETTII'll just pull out -- yeah, when the play begins, the wall lifts up revealing a bedroom, whose dominant colors are white and gray. There are three metal-framed single beds, one on the left front of the set, one on the left rear, one on the right rear. Blind people have told us that it' really important for them to know where things are on the stage. In “Peter Pan,” that was interesting, because they were frequently overhead, flying over us.

  • 12:43:11

    CARSETTIAnother do is to make sure that there's no lapse. If there's dead space, much like on the air, we're describing what's happening. So, sometimes, in a play, there is dead space, but we still have to say, well, the couple is sitting at a table. They're looking at each other intently, but they're not saying anything to each other.

  • 12:43:35

    CARSETTIThe don'ts, I think I've mentioned, is don't speak over the dialogue and don't interpret.

  • 12:43:40

    NNAMDIJasmin, there are children at the hospital who, because of their condition or the tubing they're attached to, are nonverbal. How do you engage them?

  • 12:43:48

    PORTERSo, that was something that was very interesting for me to figure out. You have to, as the volunteer, figure out how you can talk to the patient in an engaging way that doesn't require response. So, that could be reading. A lot of people prefer to bring a book of some sort you can read to them. Or you can talk to them in a way that, like I said, doesn't require a response. So, oh wow, that's such a beautiful shirt. I love that. I have a shirt just like that at home, or I see you have a picture of your favorite cat on your bed stand. I have a dog. This is his name. Things like that, where you can talk to them, but it doesn't feel like you're talking at them.

  • 12:44:30

    NNAMDIDo you also read to them?

  • 12:44:31

    PORTERYeah, sometimes. Yes.

  • 12:44:32

    NNAMDIDarryl, you call yourself a social entrepreneur. You're perhaps best-known for co-founding the Broccoli City Festival and Conference. When did it start, and what's it about?

  • 12:44:40

    PERKINSThe festival, this would be our eighth year of the festival, and Broccoli City Festival came about as a celebration of Earth Day. And we didn't see folks of color in marginalized communities participating around mental issues. And so we wanted to see people that looked like us and talked like us talking about their environment, but then also community health, and really shifting culture towards health awareness and environmental sustainability.

  • 12:45:04

    PERKINSAnd so we started -- this will be our eighth year, and it's just grown every year. And it's just been amazing to watch the growth of it and have conversations around the environmental sustainability, as well as community health. And just really mobilizing people in that spirit of positivity.

  • 12:45:21

    NNAMDIHow big has it grown, and what artists have played it?

  • 12:45:23

    PERKINSSo, the first year, we had about 3,000 people, and last year we had 30,000 people. So, it's grown immensely. We've had artists such as Nipsey Hussle, Cardi B, Future, Erykah Badu, H.E.R. We've had a lot of different artists that have been able to come and headline the festival, which has been really cool.

  • 12:45:48

    NNAMDIWhy do you call it the Broccoli City Festival?

  • 12:45:50

    PERKINSSo, Broccoli City, when you think about broccoli -- one, the name is catchy, and then but when you think of broccoli you think of green, you think of health, you think of the food. People think of money, and there's a lot of different slang that people have for broccoli. And it's kind of -- we just use it, and we kind of say it's like water. And so it can kind of mean different things to different people.

  • 12:46:08

    NNAMDIHere's Camilla in Arlington, Virginia. Camilla, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:13

    CAMILLAHi, there. I volunteer my time to teach yoga at the Arlington County detention facility.

  • 12:46:19

    NNAMDIOh, okay. And to whom do you teach yoga at the Arlington County detention facility?

  • 12:46:26

    CAMILLAI teach to the guys that are incarcerated there.

  • 12:46:30

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I guess I'm asking how many guys?

  • 12:46:33

    CAMILLAOh, it varies from five to -- we've had 10. And I have someone from LAR, (sounds like) which is an organization that provides services for the people at the detention facility. I have someone that goes with me, and he provides post-relief services. So, just a way to provide skills for them and an opportunity for yoga and also to make more connections with the community.

  • 12:46:59

    NNAMDIThank you very much. That is an unusual volunteering opportunity. Thank you for doing it. Finally, here's Kim in Rockville. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:09

    KIMWow. I am really grateful for this show. I have learned a lot. I'm going to look up Broccoli City and pass that on to quite a few people. I've never even thought of yoga in jail. That's a good idea. I know someone who is into yoga. I'm going to suggest that one. And so many good ones. The patient volunteer thing, oh, I've done that myself. I love that one. That's a good idea. And the best, the Washington Ear. I love that service. That's fantastic. God bless you, Ms. Janet and everyone at the Ear. You are all fabulous.

  • 12:47:45

    NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Kim. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Janet Carsetti, Jasmin Porter, Darryl Perkins, thank you all for joining us. Please keep on doing what you're doing. This segment about volunteerism was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about the gun rights rally in Richmond was produced by Maura Currie. Join us tomorrow, as we bring you NPR's special coverage of the first day of President Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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