Participants scale a steep section of the trail while commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by climbing to the top of Stone Mountain with children who aspire to be great during "The Dream Walk" on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Stone Mountain. In his "I Have A Dream" speech, Dr. King spoke of a symbolic bell of freedom ringing from the tops of Stone Mountain to the hills of Tennessee. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

MLK’s spirit of social service lives on during national holiday

Willard Lariscy will spend most of his workday Monday getting his hands dirty volunteering at the Lifecycle Building Center, a nonprofit that sells salvaged building materials at a discount.

Roughly 200 other employees of the Atlanta office of Perkins + Will will be out in the community as well, repairing homes, feeding the hungry, cleaning up historic Oakland Cemetery or working with young environmentalists.

“There’s a lot of sweat equity going out in the community,” said Lariscy, managing director of the Atlanta office of the international global architecture and design firm. “Martin Luther King (Jr.) lived in Atlanta and that provides an inspiring framework. It’s a great day to rally around someone whose life was about service.”

Indeed, 30 years after the United States started observing the civil rights leader’s birthday as a national holiday, thousands of metro Atlantans are pitching in this day to help those less fortunate.

And this year, some local nonprofits say the level of volunteerism has increased noticeably.

“There’s definitely an uptick,” said Whitney Stovall, chief visionary officer of Hello, My Name is KING, an Atlanta- and DeKalb-based organization that works with youths and men of color.

Stovall had to refer volunteers to other nonprofits after too many signed up for an event she is coordinating to work in community gardens.

She needed about 30 people and more than 60 signed up, including 50 in a week.

“I think a lot is going on in the world today, and people are watching the news coverage locally and around the world,” Stovall said.

Outcries over the use of excessive force by police. A growing refugee crisis. Nine people gunned down in a Charleston, S.C., church. Families facing days without adequate food.

“People really want to do something and not just be at home on King Day,” she said. “They want to feel like they’re making a difference. If I didn’t do anything, I’d be feeling some kinda way about myself.”

Related:

Read how Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday

Little-known facts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday was a long time in the making, with starts and stops along the way.

Then in 1982 Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder went to Washington with petitions bearing more than 6 million signatures in support of a national holiday to House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

The next year, then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation proclaiming the third Monday in January as the annual federal holiday. The first official celebration took place on Jan. 20, 1986.

Since the beginning, service has been a cornerstone of the federal holiday.

Malikah Berry, senior VP of programs for Points of Light and who leads the organization’s MLK Jr. Day of Service initiative, said Coretta Scott King “was adamant that this not be a day of consumerism but a day of giving back as a fitting tribute to Dr. King’s legacy.”

At Open Hand Atlanta, about 150 people have signed up to volunteer on the holiday. That number could grow as people show up who have not registered.

Tina Dennard, co-founder of the Adopt a Role Model Program in Macon, said volunteers will come Monday to read and teach literacy to youths and to make repairs at the center.

“In the last 10 years, I don’t let people say no, they can’t do anything,” she said. “If Dr. King could leave his four little children and go out in the world to try to make a difference, we can too. You gotta get out there. We have to make a difference.”

One of the volunteers will be Robert Styles. He will come dressed as UBIE, the anti-bully superhero, who will talk with youths about nonviolence and bullying.

Styles said he has volunteered on the King holiday for the past five years. “It’s very important to set an example and to be a servant,” he said. “He (King) gave so much of his life to service. He’s the example for me to follow.”

Points of Light’s Berry finds hope for the concept of community service because the holiday falls so early in the year.

“People make resolutions of sorts to serve throughout the year.”

But that doesn’t always happen.

As too often happens at nonprofits, especially smaller ones, volunteers come and go. Or smaller nonprofits go overlooked altogether.

While Everett Flanigan, administrative dean at Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta, has seen a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in volunteers each King holiday, the challenge is to keep the momentum going. He finds encouragement though in the number of teen and young adult volunteers who are showing up.

“People are reminded of what King had to say about the common good in most people, and that causes people to want to do something,” he said. “Even if it’s only a couple of hours of doing something good, it makes them feel better.”

Most people, though, don’t keep it up after the holiday, he said.

“It’s like going to church at Easter,” he said. “If (going to church) is not a common part of your life, you may not keep it up.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X