Volunteers through HandsOn Greater DC Cares paint inspirational quotes along the halls of Tyler Elementary.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

On Jan. 16, over 75 community and student volunteers, mostly young adults in their 20s and early 30s, found them- selves living by those words – spoken by the great Indian pacifist leader Mahatma Gandhi. They spent the Martin Luther King, Jr.(MLK) Day of Service, painting such inspirational quotes as well as bright images in the hallways of Tyler Elementary School in Southeast.

“They’re painting dancing fruits and vegetables in our cafeteria. We have a big wellness initiative here and it will just be a visual reminder that fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy for you,” said Jennifer Frentress, the principal. “We have both a literacy and a math initiative, so having the math facts up the risers and the words on the walls, the kids notice it right away…it ties into the work that we’re doing.”

The painting project was part of a larger beautification effort that took place in honor of Dr. King. Children worked next to senior citizens to clean up the whole campus and enhance what was already there. They became part of something much bigger, a day of service that got its start just four days after King was fatally shot in April 1968.

Volunteers serve food at We Feed Our People outside of the MLK Lirbary.


Volunteers serve food at We Feed Our People outside of the MLK Lirbary.

A Long Road

After those four days, legislation for a federal holiday in honor of MLK was introduced. It was greatly opposed, pointing to the fact that only Christopher Columbus and George Washington were honored by this sort of holiday, and citing the financial burden of paying so many employees for another day off.

The next year, the King Center (founded June 1968), sponsored an observance of King’s birthday and campaigned for national celebration of his life.

In the years to follow, preceding federal acknowledgment of the holiday, union workers demonstrated for the right to observe it – after all, King was shot while supporting an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees strike. Schools were closed in Chicago when city employees were ordered to work on MLK’s birthday, and teachers went on strike: schools have closed on MLK Day
since. 80,000 dress- makers and over 25,000 hospital workers in New York went on strike, separately, until they were awarded better wages, better benefits, and a paid holiday in honor of MLK.

With continued labor demonstrations, a record-breaking petition (6 million signatures for a King Day bill), and a corporate-funded campaign through the King center, congress finally voted in favor of a MLK Day by overwhelming majority, and President Nixon signed the bill in 1983.

The first federal holiday in honor of MLK was observed in 1986, and has occurred every 3rd Monday of January since – which usually occurs around the 15th, his actual birthday. The day of service has evolved over time to provide help where it is really needed. That first celebration by the King Center really set the tone: celebrating his life through education in his teachings and nonviolent action to carry forward his unfinished work.

This gentleman’s identity remains unknown, only because he remained silent and motionless in this position for the hour our correspondent was present at the MLK memorial.


This gentleman’s identity remains unknown, only because he remained silent and motionless in this position for the hour our correspondent was present at the MLK memorial.


“We have so much work, we can’t possibly get our work done without community helpers. So we have really reached out to the community,” said Frentress. She said that when volunteers get involved with projects like this, they learn how incredibly beneficial their time can be.

The school improvement project was coordinated by HandsOn Greater DC Cares, a nonprofit network that matches volunteers to nonprofits, foundations, and projects in the District, Virginia, and Maryland. The organization’s web- site claims a network of more than 860 nonprofits and 43,000 volunteers. Tyler Elementary was one of 35 sites that made up Greater DC Cares’ MLK Day of Service project, which brought out approximately 2,000 volunteers. This year marked Greater DC Cares’
13th annual MLK Day of Service.

The nonprofit worked to find projects to fit people’s interests and talents. Many volunteers were looking for a way to give back to their community, many felt it particularly important to contribute to their neighborhood schools. Soand me said they picked this project in particular because of their interest in literacy and education.

The System Supports Service

While all of the work accomplished on the MLK Day of Service is completely voluntary, the opportunity to observe the holiday is enshrined by legislation. Under the Clinton presidency, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act in 1994. The act mandates that the Corporation for National Service, established just a year before, heads up planning for MLK Day as a day of service.

The Corporation is a merger of two older government agencies with a goal of “building a culture of citizenship, service, and responsibility,” according to NationalService.gov. It was created to manage government service programs like AmeriCorp, and Learn and Serve America – which the MLK Day of Service falls under.

President Obama renewed the government’s commitment to service through the Corporation when he signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2010 which reauthorizes and expands national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and fits under his own “United We Sere” initiative.

The Corporation also provides that every state, and the District, have a Service Commission. These commissions award and evaluate AmeriCorp grants, but they are also charged with encouraging volunteerism within their respetive states. DC’s Commission of Service is Serve DC.

Collaborating for Success

As part of their mission to encourage volunteerism, Serve DC has made the MLK Day of Service part of its Seasons of Service calendar – the first event of the year. This year marked the office’s 11th annual involvement in project planning for the day, and their 6th year in parnership with a particular nonprofit – We Feed Our People (WFOP).

“For us, it’s about collaboration and ending the product cycle of homeless- ness,”said Carly Skidmore, events and outreach specialist with Serve DC.

As the name might suggest, WFOP feeds people. According to WeFeedOurPeople.org, the project started in 1988- two years after the holiday was first celebrated, when three friends realized that many service organization and offices for benefit programs would close for the federal holiday, thus inadvertently harming the poor that King fought for. The founders pooled the money they would receive for their paid holiday and cooked for the handful of people that were living in the park next to the MLK Memorial Library downtown.

This year there were about 1000 people in attendance, according to Herman Fortson, the director for WFOP. “It was about a one to one ratio out there, slightly more people serving than being served even.”

Long line of tables with trays of food; many volunteers serving hot meals; some tables set up near the library doors for people to get off their feet while they eat; warm clothes being handed out; the core of the event has only strengthened. With Serve DC’s involvement in the past years, WFOP now offers HIV/AIDS testing and employment services, provided by Calvary Council Care, and DC Dept. of Employ- ment Services respectively. These additional agencies run their services out of mobile units, to provide more privacy for clients.

“I appreciate the fact that this is really a collaboration of the public, the library, the city, and community based organizations coming together to meet a certain need, said Hugh Bailey, Associate director for One Stop Operations at the D.C. Dept. of Employment Services.

Bailey was a little disappointed that only around a dozen people had visited his mobile unit by mid day. He acknowledged that WFOP is more focused on basic needs like food and clothing, but he is ready to help many more.

“Dedicated people and nonprofits in the District and throughout the country carry out Dr. King’s legacy each and every day,”Lisa Estrada, Street Sense board chair, spoke to the crowd. “The next phase in his fight for civil rights was to be focused on the poor and the dignity that can be achieved through empowering people to help themselves.”

The sun set on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington D.C. with children gathered with their parents around MLK’s stone image at the Tidal Basin. They were oddly quiet and reverent (for children), and Charisse, a volunteer from the Tyler Elementary project thought, “I can’t wait till the kids come to school tomorrow. They will be really excited.”