An MLK Day invitation to grow through service

Martin Luther King Day was established as a National Holiday in 1983. Eleven years later in 1994, Congress added a service component to the holiday. Monday January 21 marks the 25th anniversary of our federally designated National Day of Service, also called the “King Day of Service” or “A Day On, Not a Day Off.”

Through his leadership of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King provided tremendous service to our nation. Despite this, media coverage of the service aspect of Martin Luther King Day celebrations is sparse. Especially rare are stories that highlight impacts of volunteering that go beyond economic valuation and personal benefits.

How can we build on Dr. King’s legacy and celebrate volunteering in ways that strengthen our neighborhoods and nation? We can conceive of service as an expression of citizenship, service as an expression of generosity, and service as the opportunity to experience a felt sense of community.

Citizenship. The pressures of our day-to-day political and economic engagement tend to reduce us to “voters” or “consumers.” Through this process we lose sense of ourselves as citizens, and lose connection to our communities. Volunteering allows us to connect deeply with one another as citizens in the craft of working together for the common good.

Generosity. Non-profits, schools and nursing homes do not need “free labor” or “spare time” as much as they need the generosity of spirit that prompts us to engage as volunteers. In sharing our generosity, we are held to a higher standard: the intention to enhance the true well-being of those to whom our generosity is given.

Community. Volunteering is about a felt sense of community. It is about making connections and building resilience. Connections, resilience – these are especially critical assets in these more trying times.

As we recognize 25 years of celebrating service as a national value, let’s reflect on and commit to grow through the broad benefits of volunteerism. Evolving through service in this way can help strengthen our diverse communities and further protect civil rights and civil liberties.

Heather Fenyk, Ph.D. serves as Board President of the 100% volunteer-run Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership based in New Brunswick, NJ.

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