“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve…You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
Those are the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke them in 1968, two months before his murder. Service is how the United States celebrates his life and work every year around his birthday, January fifteenth.
Monday, January 19th is the federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Most schools and government offices are closed that day. The U.S. Congress established the holiday in 1983. In 1994, it became a National Day of Service.
Dr. King’s life was about service in the name of peace, justice and equality. He led efforts to end the racial separation laws in place in America in the first half of the 20th century. He did this by organizing acts of civil disobedience. He urged people to disobey unjust laws through non-violent resistance.
He led protests and was arrested 30 times. His activism in America led to the signing of important legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He continued working for peace and justice until his murder in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
On Monday, Americans will serve in different ways including working to feed the hungry at soup kitchens, collecting bicycles for the poor in Africa, and visiting with people all alone at homes for the elderly.
Wendi Cherry and her daughter Sydni Barra of Arlington, Virginia got an early start on the Day of Service. On Saturday, they joined a large group at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park in Washington.
“We weeded and hoed and put down mulch to beautify the whole area.”
Sydni enjoyed herself despite the weather.
“I liked it. It was cold outside but I liked it. It was fun.”
The family believes in serving others and not just on Dr. King’s birthday. Ms. Cherry says Sydni is in involved in a volunteer group that meets weekly. The Delta Academy is an international organization for girls 11 to 14 years old. They take on all kinds of community projects says Wendi Cherry.
“They do stuff at the shelters, they play bingo with the eldery, they do sorting at the food bank…so different activities.”
Charlie King, his wife Ashley Nunn and their two children live in Holly Springs, North Carolina. They also believe in serving others -- the four-legged kind.
Charlie King with the family's many dogs. Photo: A. Nunn
“We’ve become involved in dog and pet rescue. We really love animals. They're fun. I really can’t imagine our lives without all these animals in our house.”
Right now the family is caring for four dogs, two cats and two horses. Most of the animals will stay with them forever. But they are seeking permanent homes for two of the dogs.
“I guess we believe in just constantly trying to put something positive out into the world. Positive energy.”
Charlie King says animal rescue provides good learning experiences for his children, too.
“To care for another living creature…to, obviously, teach responsibility in taking care of a pet. But, to teach them empathy towards, really, any living creature.”
Americans of all ages will get out on Monday including Mary Holt of Arlington. But volunteering is not unusual for the 91-year-old.
“I volunteer a lot at my church.”
When she says a lot, she means it.
“I volunteer in the office at least twice a week. I volunteer Mondays for the homeless meals, making meals for 70 people. And then on Wednesdays I volunteer for what we call refill dinner, where we serve dinners and anyone is welcome to come to the dinner. I’m busy. I love it.”
And why does she enjoy the work so much?
“Because I feel like I’m helping people. When they need help at the church, I’m always available. I’ve been doing this for probably 20 or 25 years.”
Wendi Cherry feels the same way about service.
“I feel like we get more giving to others.”
I’m Caty Weaver.
Is volunteer work important where you live? Do you have a volunteer experience you would like to tell us about? Post your thoughts in the comments section.
Words in This Story
grace – n. help or kindness that God gives or shows to people
soup kitchen – n. a place that gives food (such as soup and bread) to poor people
elderly – adj. old or rather old : past middle age
positive – adj. good or useful
empathy – n. the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions