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Parks Will Be Beneficiaries of Make a Difference Day

Watts Branch Park used to be everything that a park isn’t supposed to be.

Rundown and neglected, the longest municipal park in Washington, D.C., was crime-ridden and home to drug addicts. But the work of nearly 23,000 volunteers has given the park a new start.

“It’s pretty exciting. It goes way beyond just cleaning up a park or making it pretty,” said Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks and People, the group spearheading the park’s revitalization.

On Saturday, more than 500 people are expected to converge at Watts Branch, located in the far Northeast part of the District, for National Make a Difference Day.

The day marks the completion of the park’s second phase of revitalization. Volunteers from the neighborhood, nearby schools and city organizations will paint, plant trees and install new signage in the park, which was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson as part of her Keep America Beautiful campaign almost 40 years ago.

It caps off a four-year effort begun by neighborhood children and seniors to revitalize the park and make it a safe, beautiful place for the community to gather.

“The kids and the seniors are the ones who led the way,” Coleman said. “The seniors with their memories … and the kids with their dreams.”

The revitalization of Watts Branch Park reflects a nationwide effort to clean up America’s urban communities by making neighborhood parks safe for children again, Coleman said.

“There are literally tens of millions of Americans who have been a part of it,” he said.

Other volunteers across D.C. will participate in similar efforts. The Anacostia Waterfront Corp. will sponsor a cleanup event at River Terrace Park to refurbish sections of the nearby river.

Fifty to 75 volunteers, many of them students at local schools, will clear brush from the midway point in the park down to East Capitol Street to allow for a better view of the river, said Melissa McKnight, who is spearheading the cleanup sponsored by the corporation.

“We’ve been working on this all summer,” McKnight said. “It’s really something the community members wanted us to do.”

Volunteers at Watts Branch Park, meanwhile, will have spent the day completing the revitalization of the old Crystal Lounge nightclub into a community center and will mark the renaming of an amphitheater in the park in honor of R&B legend Marvin Gaye.

The City Council also is considering renaming the park after the singer, who spent his childhood years playing music by the stream, Coleman said.

“The park is really on the map, and I think there was a time when people would have rejected naming it after Marvin Gaye because it would have been an embarrassment to his memory,” Coleman said.

But now, Gaye would be proud, and hopefully the work will continue elsewhere, Coleman said.

“You don’t have to wait for the government,” Coleman said. “You don’t have to wait for millions of dollars. You just have to take the initiative.”