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12 Powerful Ways People Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

It's the perfect time to get involved in good works that generate love and abolish hatred. Here's how some people have chosen to amplify Dr. King's legacy.

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25 years of good deeds

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. One of his most famous quotes, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” may serve as the cornerstone sentiment of the federal holiday celebrated each year in his honor. January 20, 2020, marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Since its inception, it has been positioned as a day of service to others—and an incredible opportunity for anyone and everyone to make a difference. If you’re wondering how you can get involved, these meaningful, real-life ideas will inspire you.

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Fostering leadership skills and saving the environment

Alicia White is the founder of the environmental and community advocacy organization Project Petals, which aims to revitalize underserved communities in her borough and other under-resourced areas. She cites King as a major inspiration in her life. “I grew up in Queens [New York] seeing a lack of environmental improvement and educational programming,” she says. “Dr. King has inspired me in so many ways, and creating a volunteer service organization is one of them. I really wanted to make a change.”

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, White and a volunteer group comprised of students from elementary school PS 253 will be volunteering for a community cleanup in Jamaica, Queens, at Railroad Park. The fenced-off, heavily littered natural area attracts migratory birds, who may be endangered by eating plastics and other forms of dangerous debris in the park. This project illustrates Project Petal’s goal of helping foster youth-driven, environmental engagement that turns kids into leaders, generating better outcomes for both the children involved and the communities they serve. The bottom line: You can make a difference—a big one. Here are 10 lives that were forever changed thanks to the power of generosity.

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Teaching social justice

The parents who founded the Charles River School in 1911 wanted their kids to be moral leaders who would take responsibility for themselves, their classmates, and their community. That sentiment continues to echo through the school’s work today. For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, the school is running an assembly that includes workshops about social justice for students across all grades and ages. Their hope is to engage each child in an authentic way, by not only celebrating King’s message but also by embodying it.

“What is important to remember is that Dr. King’s work is a link amongst others who went before him, alongside him, and after him,” explains Elena Pereira, committee co-chair of the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “Dr. King’s last book was Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? As a community, we are raising children to know themselves, understand others, and shape the future.”

Seventh-grader Jackson Beehr is looking forward to this year’s activities. “Charles River School challenges us to support issues of social justice, by teaching us about real-world issues,” he says. “They encourage us to go out and make the world a better place. Last year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we sang the song ‘Loving Kindness.’ The song really gets the message across about the issues of social justice.”

As Periera points out, King’s work isn’t finished—not by a long shot. “This day is a day where we not only celebrate Dr. King and the many who’ve challenged injustice, but a day to, first, make connections with those engaged in the work around us, and second, to explore our own opportunities for impact, to follow them in the pursuit of a better world,” she adds. If you’re wondering how you can help, try these 15 creative ways to volunteer and make a difference.

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Feeding those who are less fortunate

Who runs the world? Girl Scouts! For the past five years, the members of Pennsylvania’s Girl Scout Troop 636 have spent their day off from school cooking and serving lunch at the Everlasting Life Ministries in downtown Allentown. Around 100 people usually attend, many of whom are homeless, elderly, or just have trouble affording a hot meal every day. The troop’s event is funded through a $250 grant donated by Scout Leader Heather Krey’s insurance agency in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

“We did our first MLK Day lunch in 2015 when the girls were in 6th and 7th grade. That year, we spent several of our meetings looking up recipes, making shopping lists, and ensuring that everything would fit into our $250 budget. The troop leaders did most of the cooking but made sure to keep the girls involved every step of the way,” explains Krey. “It is absolutely fantastic to see how the girls have grown in confidence and leadership as they have been serving their neighbors at the Ministry.”

This work has made a big impact on Sophia LaPenta, a 16-year-old troop member. “I love doing our MLK dinner because it feels wonderful to come back each year and be greeted with the familiar smiling faces at the ministry. It is incredibly rewarding to take charge to prepare meals with my fellow Girl Scouts and see the happiness it brings to those who enjoy it. Every step of the way is fun, but the best of all is sharing a meal with those at the ministry and taking a moment to be grateful on MLK day.”

It’s that gratitude and an increased awareness of the world that make this event so important. “Living outside the city all my life really removes me from the plight of so many people around the world without homes, and in my case, just 15 minutes away,” says 16-year-old Sarah Kolasa. “Experiences like these that promote simple human interactions with those different from you are vital to understanding both your role in the world and the vision of Dr. King.” Check out this story of how one 17-year-old is helping to feed 12,000 homeless people.

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Helping kids graduate college

Corporate America can play a huge role in moving Dr. King’s vision forward. Natural Grocers, a national chain of organic food stores, proves this. The Colorado-based business has partnered with Jack and Jill of America, a nonprofit, membership organization of moms with kids aged 2 through 19, that is dedicated to nurturing future African American leaders. The partnership has launched a multifaceted, national investment campaign, scheduled to kick off on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2020.

Through Natural Grocers’ donations and customer fundraising, the initiative will raise money to support Jack and Jill of America’s Graduation Assistance Program (GAP), a fund for current students of historically black colleges or universities who can’t graduate because of small unpaid tuition bills. Every year, a number of seniors are stopped from graduating because they can’t make ends meet while going to school. This fund aims to change that reality, launching the leaders of tomorrow into the workforce as college graduates. Don’t miss these stories of people who came from nothing—and now want nothing more than to give back.

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Engaging college students in a day of service

In 1960, four African American college students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and were denied service. The four remained in their seats, sparking a six-month-long passive-resistance movement throughout the community. Today, UNC Greensboro, a university in that town, honors their courage and celebrates the message of Martin Luther King, Jr. annually through an MLK Day of Service throughout Greensboro and the surrounding area.

This initiative has been led for the past six years by Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., the only African American Chancellor of a non-HBCU (historically black college or university) in the Southeast. “There is no place for hate in this world, and there is no place for the violence that hate incites. Discrimination or persecution of any one of us based on our identity or beliefs can only serve to divide all of us,” he says. “My hope for each of us is that we carry a message of shared fate, of hope and of action. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and every day, we have a chance to make an important difference through our studies, service, and civic engagement.”

You don’t have to stay local to make a difference. In fact, “voluntourism” is more popular than ever, but there’s a right (and wrong) way to do it.

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Teaming up to do some serious good

The UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation of New York, along with 12 other New York–based organizations including the Kings Bay Y, the Hebrew Educational Society, and Repair the World Harlem, are promoting a day of service in honor of Dr. King’s vision and legacy. Their goal is to mobilize the Jewish community and the community at large to engage in service, learning, and a dialogue about justice, faith, and advocacy. More than 5,000 volunteers will come together through a vast array of interfaith projects, designed to combat food insecurity and to provide supplies for disaster relief, among other issues.

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And the children shall lead

If you think the only thing coming out of Washington, D.C., these days is confusion, think again. Youth Service America, a D.C.-based resource center, is helping to mobilize scores of organizations and young people, aged 5 to 25, to get involved and do good not only on MLK Day but all year long. Based on the principle that youth can change the world, YSA is actively working to encourage kids to get loud, serve, collaborate, and celebrate. They are also supplying teachers with lesson plans about Martin Luther King, Jr., along with information about financial literacy. For some truly wonderful stories, check out the most heartwarming acts of kindness in 2019.

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Dining with a difference

For those looking to learn about history while enjoying a lovely meal, pay a visit to the Shelter Harbor Inn in Westerly, Rhode Island. Inn owner and history buff Dennis Flanagan plans to hold regular on-site activities that bring the local community together. This year, the Inn will host its first Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Dinner. The event will feature local high school history teacher Steve Servidio, who will provide guests with an important history lesson about the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was born into slavery around 1799, and Dred Scott v. Sanford was a ten-year court fight for the freedom of Scott and his family. The landmark case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and was considered one of the catalysts for the Civil War.

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Fostering diversity and community engagement

The University of Mississippi, fondly known as Ole Miss, is mobilizing staff, students, and teachers to spearhead far-reaching projects that promote diversity and community engagement while honoring the legacy of Dr. King. The University will also hold a free community banquet on campus featuring a discussion on the theme “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Right to Vote: The Long Road to Freedom.” Other events on and off campus include film screenings and a reading of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” as well as a canned-food drive and a voter-registration drive. If you would like to host your own film screening, these 10 thought-provoking movies are great ones to watch on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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Singing a song of freedom

The Community House in Winnetka, Illinois, is inviting all levels of musicians and singers, of all ages, to lift their voices and lend their talents to musical performances about peace, patriotism, and equality. All types of music will be played and shared, including gospel, folk, and soul. But that’s not all: The event will also include a clothing and food drive, as well as an opportunity to make fleece blankets that will be donated to a homeless shelter. Other hands-on projects geared toward benefiting a wide range of community non-profit organizations will be also available on site for adults and children.

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Veterans fighting the good fight

The Mission Continues is a nonprofit organization that empowers veterans to continue their service at home by making an impact in their local communities. For MLK Day 2020 and the entire month of January, the organization is creating a #LegacyofService campaign that will bring veterans together with local schools, community centers, and allied organizations to produce national service events that exemplify Dr. King’s values and mission. They include a Community Engagement Forum that will be hosted in conjunction with Target’s Employee Resource Groups in Minneapolis, a Compton Cleaning Up the Block initiative in Los Angeles, Build Something with the Taft Boys and Girls Club in Orlando, and many more.

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Branches Florida MLK day of serviceCourtesy Branches, MLK Day

Branching out to do good

Branches is a Florida-based nonprofit educational organization that provides student, family, and financial stability services. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the organization will celebrate its 10th annual Florida City, Love Yourself MLK Day of Service. More than 100 volunteers will come together to work on beautification initiatives—including landscaping, mural painting, and repair work—throughout the city. Next, read about the random acts of kindness that changed people’s lives.

Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.