Volunteers aid communities to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Shirley Taylor is still haunted by a 2007 fire that killed five youngsters in Larimer. The children — all of them 8 or younger — were left at home alone.

“My goal is to make sure that no one else gets injured in a fire like that,” said Taylor, who for Saturday's National Day of Service helped coordinate distribution of fire safety fliers in Highland Park, Homewood and East Liberty.

The three neighborhoods are among those reporting the highest numbers of fires in the region, according to the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“Lots of the homes here are old. Many are big and divided up into apartments. And many are owned by absentee landlords who often don't keep places up,” said Tony Piccoli of Highland Park, who took fliers around the neighborhood.

The Highland Park volunteers were among hundreds across the region participating in the National Day of Service in honor of Monday's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Volunteers cleaned up Downtown, volunteered with the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank and worked on plans for a playground in Cranberry.

This year, the volunteer effort was linked to festivities surrounding the inauguration of President Obama to a second term, the public ceremony being on Monday.

“This effort happened in 2008 as well. It is a nonpartisan effort,” said Greg Waples, lead organizer for the Inaugural Committee in Pennsylvania.

Some Highland Park volunteers were motivated by the deaths of 3-year-old twins Kyier and Dyier Arthur in North Braddock two weeks ago.

The boys' mother, Dalawna Berran-Lett, 32, left them alone in the home for nearly an hour and will be charged in connection with their deaths, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said this week.

“It's such a tragedy, the loss of those boys. It's really very hard to read about it,” said Jean Thomas of Highland Park, who distributed fire safety fliers over a 14-block area.

The biggest event in Pittsburgh was Operation Gratitude, in which more than 100 people who gathered in Homewood AME Zion Church stuffed care packages for and wrote letters to U.S. troops deployed abroad.

“I'm thrilled to see how many people are here,” said Cathie Huber of Swissvale. “We've been putting everything in these boxes — crackers, tissues, mouthwash, toothpaste.”

The event drew some people who traveled quite a distance, like the Rev. Langdon Pegram, a priest at Christ Church in New Brighton. Pegram is a retired pediatrician who served in the Air Force and the daughter of a military chaplain.

“Helping the troops appealed to me. That's why I drove 40 miles to be here. My father was an Army chaplain, and he always told us we need to give something back,” Pegram said.

Rick Wills is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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