January 19th marks two important events that are closely intertwined: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and our national day of service. Although many people are familiar with the former (some only because it’s a day off from work or school), most aren’t as hip to the latter.
In 1994, Congress made the MLK, Jr. holiday into a national day of community service to honor Dr. King and his commitment to helping others. This year, president-elect Obama is taking this call to action a step further. On the eve of his inauguration, he is asking all Americans to follow in the steps of the great Dr. King and commit not just a single day of service, but to make an ongoing pledge to our neighborhoods, towns, communities, and cities.
With our nation facing unprecedented economic and social problems, Obama’s call to service summons the same sentiment made by John F. Kennedy during his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
What Can I Do?
I was inspired to volunteer on the 19th because in my community—Oakland, California—the streets are less safe, the traffic medians dirtier, and the businesses less prolific than they were when my grandmother moved here over sixty years ago. Our communities should be getting better, not worse.
But knowing where to direct your good efforts is sometimes the hardest part about making change. However, the national organizing efforts made by the president and vice president-elect make it easy. USAservice.org is a repository of events that you can participate in on the weekend and day of the 19th. You can create a volunteer event in your community and ask others to join, or you can search by zip code for the events happening in your ’hood.
What’s Going On?
Quickly searching for activities near my home, I found quite a few that were attractive to me for somewhat selfish reasons. I like to garden, so helping plant seeds for future vegetables for low-income senior citizens was my first pick. I waited too long, and the event filled up (some have a quota).
Other activities that piqued my interest were cleaning up a local urban lake, clearing the garden space at a local high school so the students could grow vegetables and fruit in the 2009 school year, and attending a bake sale (by far the most enticing). Ultimately, I decided to volunteer, with two friends I recruited, to do beautification at a rose garden in Oakland. I’ve never been to the garden, so that was an allure, and spending four hours outdoors amidst the flowers doesn’t seem so hard.
Other types of events that are occurring:
- Giving blood
- Assembling care packages for our soldiers abroad
- Food drives
- Planting native seedlings along shorelines
- Park and neighborhood clean-ups
What if I’m on Vacation?
Although Vicki Santillano, a San Francisco resident, is going out of town for the weekend, she’s still hoping to help out.
“Donating a blanket to the United Farm Workers is definitely something I can do before I leave.”
The events are also supposed to be a kick off toward helping Americans become more engaged citizens and to inspire future community-minded activities.
“Seeing the listings for the local food banks made me remember how much fun I used to have in high school being a part of a huge sandwich assembly line, or passing out bagged lunches to people who were really grateful for what they received. I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of volunteering activities to pursue this year, so I’m excited to return to my food bank roots when I get back from vacation,” says Santillano.
Many of the participating organizations need help year round, so even if you’re unable to donate time on the 19th, you can still contribute to your community.
Change for the Greater Good
Obama’s message of change was one that inspired many people. But whether you voted for him or not, or believe in his message or not, shoring up our communities is something we can all get behind, even if it’s for personal reasons.
Personally, I’m tired of being cynical and merely complaining about the problems that plague my community and city. While I know that a national day, month, or even year of service isn’t necessarily going to solve the big problems I care about—public health, sustainability, safe neighborhoods—it is making a small step towards positive change. And it feels a lot better than doing nothing. I think Dr. King would agree.