News Column

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Honored with Volunteerism

Jan. 19, 2013

Dahleen Glanton and Katherine Skiba

Jan. 19--First came an email from first lady Michelle Obama asking supporters to join her in volunteering on a public service project in their hometowns during the presidential inauguration weekend.

Then President Barack Obama sent out a request that Americans honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by participating in the National Day of Service timed to his federal holiday.

If that wasn't enough to get people to roll up their sleeves, the Presidential Inaugural Committee offered those who signed up for a project a chance to come to Washington for the inauguration festivities -- flight and hotel included.

Under Obama's tenure as president, inauguration weekend and the Martin Luther King national holiday have become deliberately intertwined. The president's decision to link the two during his first inauguration in 2009 and again this year has breathed new life into the public service initiative that was the cornerstone of the King national holiday when it was created in 1983.

On Saturday, do-gooders from across the U.S. will get to work on more than 2,000 volunteer projects. More than 60 events are on tap in the Chicago area, from writing letters at Navy Pier to troops in Afghanistan to making a quilt at Union Station to promote peace and end violence in the city.

"You do see spikes in volunteerism during the (president's) National Day of Service," said Patty Newswanger, director of development for HandsOn Suburban Chicago, a volunteer clearinghouse for more than 180 nonprofits in the north and northwest suburbs. "A lot of it is about awareness, and anything that increases awareness helps us."

With the federal holiday falling on Monday -- the day Obama will be publicly sworn in -- the president and first lady saw an opportunity to put the spotlight on the slain civil rights leader, who urged everyone to strive for greatness by committing themselves to service.

The first family will participate Saturday in events in Washington, as will Vice President Joe Biden's family and members of Congress and the president's Cabinet. More events nationwide will occur Monday, which is the traditional King day of service.

The inaugural committee has offered a diverse lineup of events in the Chicago area on Saturday, benefiting people from all walks of life.

In Calumet City, more than 200 volunteers will paint the interior of Caroline Sibley School. At the Center on Halsted, volunteers will prepare safe-sex packets to distribute throughout the city to promote HIV/AIDS prevention. At the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, volunteers will prune outdoor plants and work in the greenhouses.

The south suburban chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a service organization of parents and their children, will collect sheet sets for a women's shelter in New York that houses victims of superstorm Sandy. The group will also prepare care packages for the USO to distribute to military personnel overseas.

"It's fitting that on the day we honor a man who died for our freedom, we are honoring men and women who are dying for our freedom every day," said Vanessa Byrd, the chapter president. "It's also important for children to understand those sacrifices that are being made every day."

There was a time a decade ago that people were eager to find ways to follow King's example by helping the less fortunate. His widow, Coretta Scott King, who fought for years to get Congress to declare the holiday, was adamant that the third Monday in January be a "day on, not a day off."

When Coretta King died in 2006, the flame that she had struggled so hard to keep alive after her husband's assassination began to fade. But the president's call for service reinvigorated the service component of the King holiday, according to officials at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

"Mrs. King was very determined that the holiday would be of purpose. It would be a way for people to serve their community and honor the life of Dr. King and not just lie around watching TV," said King Center spokesman Steve Kline.

"But there wasn't much publicity about that after a good while," he said. "After time, people get used to things, and it no longer seems novel. President Obama gave the National Day of Service on the King holiday a big boost. He reinvigorated the idea of public service."

In general, service is at a five-year high across the country, with more than 64 million volunteers in 2011, according to Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, which coordinates the King holiday day of service and other volunteer efforts. Chicago had 1.8 million volunteers in 2011, with an estimated economic value of $5.3 billion, the group reported.

"Chicago is a real giving community. It has a long history of giving," Spencer said. "I call the day of service a gateway for volunteering for the year. It's an opportunity for local nonprofits and community organizations to showcase what their needs are and invite people into their world."

Diondai Brown-Whitfield, of Chicago, hoped to get people involved with her peace quilt project by allowing them to create a square before boarding the Amtrak train to Washington on Friday evening. Once they arrive, she said, volunteers will have another opportunity Saturday to add pieces to the quilt, which she hopes will bring attention to youth violence in Chicago.

"I'm hoping that adults and young people will come together to work on the quilt, and at the same time, have a dialogue about how to address some of the problems," said Brown-Whitfield, 51, who traveled to Washington with a group organized by U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.

"When I came up with the concept, I looked at the inauguration occurring on the Martin Luther King holiday," she said. "This is the right time to talk about freedom, peace and love and for everybody to come together so that we can have a great country."

dglanton@tribune.com

kskiba@tribune.com

___

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services