Saving the world: One weed, one light bulb at a time

In high school, Jonathan Black was in the Key Club. By college, he had gotten lazy. Why worry about volunteering when you’re concentrating on a history degree and hanging out with your friends?

He felt isolated at the University of Richmond. His sights were not set on giving back.

Black’s attitude changed upon coming to Capitol Hill in 2001 to be a staff assistant for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). Surrounded by aides with a save-the-world mentality, he began to be exposed to volunteer opportunities that he had never imagined. 

Black, 29, is now a professional committee staff member. With the recent Democratic takeover and the senator’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee, Black has assumed a more rigorous schedule and dedicates 12-hour days to his boss’s upcoming bill to address global warming.  He has given up many after-hour activities such as kickball, golfing, traveling, socializing and dreaming (sleep never gets to that point, he says).

One thing he hasn’t given up: volunteering.

This past Saturday, he and 15 Senate staffers — nine of whom work for Bingaman — rolled up their sleeves and went to work at the Stuart Hobson Elementary School on Capitol Hill on behalf of Hands on D.C., a citywide volunteer effort that put more than 2,000 volunteers to work at 30 area schools. They mulched and weeded. They painted fences and doors.

Last November, Black spent a week in Biloxi, Miss., doing Hurricane Katrina relief work such as poll-monitoring on Election Day. Other duties included donning a hazmat suit to help de-mold homes and delivering a new door to an elderly woman.

“The circles I run in now are involved in volunteering, and I learn more about these opportunities from them,” he said. “With my friends in college, it wasn’t something that was so easy to come across.”

For others ankle-deep in mulch this past Saturday, motivations for being here may differ, but the sentiment is the same. Like the refrain of a song, over and over, volunteers voiced an identical thought:

“It feels right to do it,” said Mario Montoya, 27, a new media coordinator who handles Bingaman’s electronic communications.

A native of Albuquerque, N.M., Montoya came to Washington in January. On Saturday he spent the late morning painting a schoolroom door apple red. “I don’t do it to make myself feel better,” he said. “I do it for the kids. I wish someone had painted my school.”

He conceded, “It does make you feel like you’re doing something.”

Doesn’t his day job make him feel like that? “I have the most important job in the office,” he joked as he dug lint and dust from the corners of the door with his already dirty hands.

Like many aides who came out to volunteer, they each have their own stories of how they came to want to save the world. “I used to be an environmentalist before it was cool to be environmentally conscious,” Montoya said. Sixth grade was a banner year — he wrote a report on oil spills for social studies. “Thought it seemed like it was a pretty big deal. Seemed to be some pretty bad spills,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it was an inspiration for Al Gore.”

Many aides, like Montoya, commit themselves to saving the planet at work and beyond. Many recycle at home, buy eco-efficient light bulbs and turn off the lights when they can.

Last week Bingaman hosted an office party with cake to declare that the office would no longer use plastic cups or utensils — it is now strictly a paper office. “We’re very conscious about it,” said Montoya, explaining that no one would yell at you if you used plastic, but coworkers might give you funny looks.

“I really do want to save the world,” said Gina Weinstock, 24, a Democratic staff assistant on the Senate Energy Committee who moved to Washington from Lansing, Mich., two months ago.  Repeating the stock phrase makes her laugh, but she’s dead serious.

By day, she helps committee staff members on the Water and Power Subcommittee with their duties. By night, she does her part. She recycles and uses environmentally friendly light bulbs. She left her Honda Civic behind in Michigan. “If I don’t need a car I’d rather not have one,” she said.

“The land is really important,” said Nate Hill, 26, an aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) who moved to Washington from Bismarck four months ago. Hill grew up helping out on his grandfather’s farm. “My grandmother would be proud,” he said with a smile, momentarily setting down a shovel from a large mound of mulch.

“I’m a firm believer in trying to save the world,” said Tom Dower, legislative director and deputy chief of staff to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

Dower’s life took a unexpected twist in his senior year of high school when his father died. “I realized life is short, and it’s what you make of it,” he said, explaining that this was when he began getting involved.

Dower spent the day weeding and mulching and sweating. “We’ve got a pretty good thing and we’re surrounded by people who don’t,” he said.

Perhaps the most dedicated — and by far the most adorable — worker of the day was 15-month-old Elizabeth Wells. She was helping her mom, Suzanne, an Environmental Protection Agency fellow working in the office of Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), place letters on a bulletin board.

Wells’s son is an eighth grader here, and she marvels that a year ago the school had no librarian. Now, thanks to her and a number of other parents, the library has undergone major renovations and has a librarian.

“Protecting the environment is my first intent,” she said, recalling that from the time she was a little girl she was recycling, collecting newspapers and cans and picking up trash. 

As Black dedicates one night a week to tutor math at the elementary school, his daily life centers on legislation that Bingaman plans to introduce with Specter to reduce greenhouse gases.

“This whole Democratic majority thing has been a hard sell on the social life,” he said.

Still, he’s grateful and notes that he and his coworkers are saving energy by using more natural light in their new, upgraded workspace.

Black, who lives on Capitol Hill, loves the marble and architecture in his surroundings. But he feels an obligation to the schoolchildren.

 “They’re going to come to school tomorrow and see the painted fences,” he said. “I know it will make them happy.”