Why I Volunteer on Martin Luther King Day — And You Should Too

NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 25: Volunteer Chelsea Lamar paints a home still damaged by Hurricane Katrina on August 25, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The effort is part of the group Rebuilding Together's 'Fifty for Five' effort where volunteers from around the country are helping to renovate 50 homes in the Gentilly neighborhood ahead of the August 29 five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"Everyone can be great because anyone can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t even have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

—Dr. Martin Luther King

It was my sophomore year of high school when the administration decided class would be in session on Martin Luther King Day. At my small Catholic high school on the south side of Indianapolis, nearly all of the students and the community were white. 

When one of my classmates complained about having to be in school that day, our teacher asked what he had been planning to do with the day off instead. Walk in a march? Read a book about MLK? Volunteer? Of course, no student in the room had planned to do any of those things. From my teacher’s perspective, we were at least acknowledging the holiday as part of the school day, which was better than staying home on the couch playing video games.

That moment stuck with me, but it didn’t move me to action. From where I sat, it was hard to get impassioned by social justice. I had a comfortable home, a safe school, and I’d never been discriminated against. I thought poverty was bad, but I didn’t feel empowered to do anything about it. I volunteered at a hospital mostly to build my resume, and stopped when I got into college. 

This Monday, I celebrate that I’m free to do something for somebody else. 

It wasn't until more than a decade after that teacher schooled me and my classmates on our apathy that I did my first Martin Luther King Day service project. Along with coworkers, I volunteered at a community center’s day-long program for neighborhood kids. We read books to the kids, helped them create skits about social justice issues, and taught them peacemaking and anti-bullying communication skills. We also fed them pizza and cookies. 

It was a full day, and the kids came ready. They could tell you the date and details of King’s death, but they didn’t know much about “separate but equal” or the back of the bus. One boy asked, “Where did the mixed people sit?” and shook his head in astonishment when he learned about the one-drop rule

Spending time with students taught me that education is key to keeping the spirit of MLK Day alive. So many of our holidays in America are detached from their original meaning and context, and this is a holiday that should never become just another day off. Dr. King's message applies not just to the Civil Rights era, but to any struggle for social justice. King lived in the service of others, and we have to keep his experiences and philosophy in mind in order to make this day meaningful.

On this day, I remember the design of the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington D.C. is based on a quote from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech: "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope." Visitors walk between two huge pieces of granite that represent the mountain of despair. Once through, they see a large carving of King, the stone of hope, who changed things. 

There is so much bad news in the world every day. It can be demoralizing, but the King memorial sets us up to be empowered. We can choose the mountain of despair that we want to destroy, and move the first stone. The process of change looks overwhelming, but it starts with small movements.

For the last few years, I’ve been spending Martin Luther King Day sorting donations at my local school district’s clothes closet. It is decidedly not fun, but once I learned that families actually rely on this resource to keep their kids clothed, it became a non-negotiable annual tradition for me. 

It took me some time to become a woman who knows my own values and is committed to acting on them, but I wish I’d done it sooner. Belief in social justice isn’t worth much until you do something to work toward it. On Martin Luther King Day (or any other day), I believe I must give whatever I have to offer to a cause that I care about. 

This Monday, I celebrate that I’m free to do something for somebody else. 

You can search for local volunteer projects at allforgoodvolunteermatchand volunteer.gov.

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