Turn MLK Day from a “Day Off” into a “Day On”

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Photo: Natalie Silverstein

One of my favorite quotes about service is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In one of his final speeches, given two months before his death, he said, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”  While most parents with school-aged children know that the third Monday in January has been designated as a holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday—and providing a day off from school—not many people are aware of the history of this commemoration, and the way it has been transformed into a day of service over the last 25 years.

The campaign for a federal holiday honoring the slain civil rights activist began soon after his assassination in 1968. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating Martin Luther King, Jr.  Day in 1983, and it was first observed in 1986. However, in 1994, two veterans of the Civil Rights Movement who had worked with Dr. King, Representative John Lewis of Georgia and Senator Harris Wolford of Pennsylvania, co-authored legislation to create The National Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, a nation-wide effort to transform the federal holiday honoring Dr. King into a day of community service to help solve social problems. It was their hope that a national day of service, inspired by Dr. King’s ideals, would galvanize volunteers to create meaningful change and uplift local communities. They wanted to honor Dr. King’s legacy by making the observance of his birthday a “day on” rather than simply a “day off.”

While some may only recognize the long weekend in the middle of January as an opportunity to take a road trip or go skiing, the movement behind the MLK Day of Service has grown in recent years, and acts of service are now carried out in all 50 states. AmeriCorps (a federally supported volunteer program) and the Atlanta-based King Center for Nonviolent Social Change lead the MLK Day of Service in partnership with numerous national nonprofit organizations, faith-based and community groups, state service commissions, and other government agencies. Thousands of volunteers across the county deliver meals, refurbish schools and community centers, collect clothing and food, build homes, and provide services for veterans and military families, among many other acts of service and kindness.

Many schools, houses of worship, and community organizations encourage volunteerism on the MLK Day of Service by providing opportunities and events, sometimes extending these throughout the weekend and pairing them with workshops, discussions, or speakers. If you haven’t had a chance to experience one of these events in the past, this may be the best time to get involved. After the difficult year we’ve all experienced, we are reminded of the countless acts of kindness and sacrifice that helped to get us through and will continue to inspire us in the months ahead.  A day of service in the first month of this new year feels especially powerful and motivating. If you and your family want to kick start your kindness practice from home, or you want to learn how to give back in your local community, the MLK Day of Service is the perfect opportunity. There are so many small, actionable ways that you can turn an ordinary day off from school or work into a meaningful day ON in service of others and the greater good.

If you are looking for ways to help in your local community, check out these resources:

If you are looking to kick-start your kindness practice with some “kitchen table kindness activities” at home:

  • Paint Stars of Hope for people in communities experiencing trauma

  • Write letters to isolated seniors through Love For Our Elders or Letters Against Isolation

  • Color printable sheets for veterans, hospitalized children, nursing home residents, or anyone in need of a smile through Color a Smile

  • Create blankets and donate them to children in need of comfort through Project Linus

  • Write letters of gratitude and support for our active-duty military and send them to Operation Gratitude

  • Back cookies or make cards for your local first responders, to show them how much your family appreciates all they’ve done for us this past year

However your family is inspired to get involved, take the MLK Day of Service (this year celebrated on Monday, January 18th) as the perfect opportunity to start a conversation with your children about service, empathy, and civic duty. Create a new family service tradition around the holiday, and start this new year with a positive intention and a sense of purpose which might just move us all closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community.”