Courtesy Muriel Horowitz, Kim Lee Minor, Fran Seeley, Cheryl Davidson, Christopher Duncan, Lynn Epps and Teri Steinberg
Martin Luther King Jr.’s achievements in civil rights are part of America’s history and why he is celebrated on the third Monday in January each year. But there’s another element to marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday every year: volunteerism.
In addition to honoring King, MLK Day was created in 1983 to put King’s teachings and philosophies into practice by encouraging people to serve and better their communities. King fought for racial justice and achieved results through his philosophy of nonviolence. People volunteer as a way to continue that practice, and MLK Day is designated as a national day of service.
In need of some inspiration? AARP spoke to community members dedicated to service to reflect on what Martin Luther King Jr. Day means to them and why they serve.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Kimberly Lee Minor, 53
New Albany, Ohio
We’ve always done something as a family for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. When the kids were small we’d gather for events so they could learn about the day; we’d volunteer, and close the day by gathering for dinner. The kids would read something they wrote about the impact of the day. We’ve moved a few times but continue to attend events, serve in shelters, uplift those in need, and reflect on the day as a family and within our communities. This year we’re serving with Meals on Wheels.
My grandfather was a sharecropper. Thanks to decisions he made and as a result of things changing, his kids had more access, I’ve had more access, and now my kids do. For me, MLK Day is about how I use that access to make a difference, because I’m blessed. How do I use those blessings to influence other people to see how important it is to give others access as well as reaching out myself to those in need?
I work in retail and brand leadership, and I hate to hear people frame MLK weekend as an opportunity for sales. That just makes me mad. Companies should use the day to go out and make a difference in their community. That builds real loyalty and makes a difference. I also think about the time after George Floyd’s death in 2020, everybody wanted to do something. Some people actually did, but a large part of that group was very performative. It’s all about being intentional to continue to make a difference for others.
Fran Seeley, 80
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the past, I volunteered with AmeriCorps to collect socks for our “Warm Heart, Warm Feet” campaign. I also volunteer year-round working in our local school with kindergartners and as a foster grandparent.
I serve out of gratitude. I do feel that I have been blessed in many ways in my life. I have everything I need. I may not have much to leave in terms of material things, but I am so grateful for what I have and feel while I’m alive I should be able to share that with whoever needs it.
I once heard this quote from Muhammad Ali, who said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” I really do believe strongly in those words. Volunteering should be an integral part of the fabric of people’s lives from an early age. While volunteers don’t necessarily serve to get something out of the experience, we certainly do.
Christopher Duncan, 70
Poughkeepsie, New York
I’ve volunteered year-round for the past 30 years. I don’t purposely plan to volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but sometimes the schedules work out that way.
At my church we provide hot food, clothing and personal needs for the homeless and families who have very little. We’ve been doing this for the past three years after discovering one of the soup kitchens in our area does not serve meals some weekends. I also volunteer working with migrants and asylum seekers.
For me, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity to be aware that racial prejudice exists. It’s ingrained in the country and in our culture. That’s why I feel obligated to counter that and help people get what they deserve and not be cut out because of prejudice. Volunteering means using my white privilege to support and assist those in need: the poor, the marginalized, the Black and Brown communities, and so on.
Lynn Epps, 63
North Chicago, Illinois
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I would usually volunteer with churches and recite the poetry I write about Black history. For the last decade, I’ve been part of a celebration event that includes reflections on Black history, songs and other activities to pay homage to Dr. King. I always close the show by doing a couple of songs or reciting poems, and always read the “I Have a Dream” speech.
The day King died I was at school in Chicago. I remember they released everyone early that day. Me and my sister were trying to figure out why and as we started walking down the street we saw people crying, and screaming, and throwing rocks at buses. When we got home we found out what happened. That moment really impacted me and honestly is what got me into writing. It made me socially conscious.
A few years ago, we considered changing the show and dropping the reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech. We realized the past few years are evidence that we still need that speech. It’s more relevant now than ever. I was thinking about it the other day: At times it almost feels like the ’50s and ’60s again. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Muriel Horowitz, 78
Poughkeepsie, New York
I volunteer in my community all year round, including Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’ve done it all, from collecting supplies to organizing movements for anti-racist efforts. This year I am organizing a peace vigil. We want to create an opportunity for the community to come together.
I just feel like it’s my obligation as a human being to serve. In the last 15 years since I retired, I’ve increased the amount of volunteering I’ve done. My Jewish faith tells me I need to do this. I also think about being a model for my grandchildren and for the people in my community. You’re never too old to give back in whatever way you can.
We need to care for one another. Those of us who have more can give more, and those of us who don’t have as much can help in small ways. There are so many ways to get involved. The more you give back, the more you get back. I really feel that I get so much. I’ve met people in communities I wouldn’t have otherwise met. A few years ago I helped build homes in Nicaragua. It’s just expanded my world. So I really encourage people to give back. You’ll be a better person and hopefully contribute to a better world.
Cheryl Davidson, 63
Virginia Beach, Virginia
I’ve volunteered for as long as I can remember. When I was in high school we used to go to nursing homes to serve. Once you start, you can’t stop.
The past few years I’ve been an organizer and helped disseminate information to my networks about what’s happening on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I also participate in the annual march.
Service is my calling. It’s a passion that I have and I enjoy it. Especially as a minority, I feel like I’m doing something for my people and I just want to make a difference for us. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is important. It took us a while to get that day, so I want to celebrate it. It’s not just a Black holiday. It’s a day for everyone. Especially with all the political tensions — all the dislike and the hate — we should use this day to take a step back and reflect on what we can do to make a difference.
Teri Steinberg, 66
Highland Park, Illinois
I am the chair of an event that we hold here citywide. It’s a day of service to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. We have speeches; drop boxes for clothes, supplies and medical goods; and we work with the homeless, battered women’s shelters and the Rotary Club, among others.
As far back as I can remember, I was always raising money for the less fortunate. It just seems like there’s a disconnect right now with the “all about me” attitude that’s so prevalent in our society. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if it’s from the political climate, but I was raised to do whatever I can for those in need. Little acts of kindness and paying it forward. I want to see more of that. Not just at Christmas, but I want to see it all year.
I serve because I believe it’s my job. My mother taught me to make this world a better place. She used to say, “If you can’t be a tree on the top of the hill, be a bush, but be the best little bush you can be.” So everywhere I see injustice, no matter what, I feel compelled to act. It’s just who I am. It’s just the way I roll.
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Find Ways to Volunteer on MLK Day
If you’re look for either virtual or in-person opportunities to be of service to your community, visit these sites:
- AARP’s virtual volunteer page
- AARP’s community volunteer opportunity finder
- AmeriCorps MLK Day volunteer options
VolunteerMatch, a nonprofit, can help you locate community service in your area
Carlett Spike is a contributing writer who covers race issues, health and food. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Shondaland and Columbia Journalism Review.