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Volunteers Pitch in to Spruce Up New York City Schools

When New York City public schools are criticized for the poor quality of their education and overlooking the needs of children, defenders of the school system frequently say they don't have the resources necessary to improve the schools. But thousands of local volunteers are trying to change that, by helping to clean up the city's public schools.

A local artist penciled a mural on the wall in a middle school auditorium. A national home furnishings store donated the paint, and about 25 New York City residents are playing artist for the day, filling in the holes.

Volunteer Jenine Pellegrino is hard at work painting different colored stick figures that are walking past a skyscraper, symbolizing the many diverse nationalities that live and work in Manhattan. Her contribution, she says, is just part of the mural's larger vision.

"There's people walking through the city, there is the U.N., the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Rockettes scene, and different New York things like paying tolls and subway signs and things like that," she says.

Ms. Pellegrino is among the some 8,000 volunteers who set to work in one of about 110 schools throughout the city on a recent Saturday, providing an opportunity for some dingy public schools to get a facelift from people who want to help out for an afternoon.

Ariel Zwang took charge of several dozen volunteers at one school that teaches ages four to 13 in Manhattan.

"They are painting walls that need to be painted and brightened up, painting murals which are really inspirational and beautify the environment here," she says. "They are reorganizing school libraries and making them much more able to be used by the kids who need to use the books. We wire computer rooms on this day, we paint line games in play yards so that kids can make better use of recess and enjoy that more."

Ms. Zwang heads a volunteer group called New York Cares, which organizes about 50,000 projects like this one each year. She says more than 25,000 volunteers help in a variety of causes from taking care of AIDS patients to tutoring kids to helping at animal rescue shelters.

The principal of the school, Sheri Donovan, says the extra effort makes up for what the city cannot provide.

"A lot of things do get paid for but this school in particular we have a large summer school here every summer and keeping up with that and keeping up with painting that should be done periodically is very, very hard," she says. "So this kind of makes up for it."

Volunteer Heather Degenhardt is upstairs in the library, cleaning and re-stacking books for the kids.

"It's once a year we come and I don't think that is enough," she says. "Because we all live in the community and the city is so good to us. It is something we should all do I think. It's very important."

Ms. Degenhardt says she found out that this school has no library system for checking out books, so kids aren't allowed to take the books home. She says he hopes to come back again, to help code the books so kids can read them at home.

The volunteer director, Ms. Zwang, says that kids do notice the volunteers' work.

"That's my favorite part," she says. "On Monday when I get back to office, there are always calls and letters waiting. My favorite was a picture of a child lying on the floor and the teacher wrote, 'He fainted when he saw how beautiful the school looked!' It was really funny and cute."

Organizers say the volunteer effort benefits some 80,000 New York City children.