For those wanting to do more on the upcoming three-day Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend (Jan. 17-19) than sleep in, clean house or catch up on Game of Thrones, there are many options — ones that honor the slain civil rights leader.
Depending on where you live, you can volunteer for one of numerous service projects, be part of a MLK Day march and rally, join a supper club to discuss social issues or run a MLK Day 5K, accompanied by a three-mile long drum line.
In 1994, Congress designated Martin Luther King Day as a National Day of Service, encouraging Americans to spend the day helping their communities. Since then, the number of events has grown and the Internet and email have made it easy to find and sign up for local volunteer projects. Participants now share their volunteer experiences on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (hashtag: #MLKDay2015).
The largest event of its kind, the 20th Annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, is expected to include more than 135,000 volunteers helping out at over 1,800 service projects.
Founder and director Todd Bernstein, 57, who started the annual event in 1996 with Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), says the idea was born of disappointment soon after the federal holiday started. "We talked about the irony that so many had campaigned for the federal holiday, and after all that, it was turning into another day of sleeping late and watching TV or going to the mall, especially for young people," says Bernstein. "We thought: 'Wouldn't it be great if people could rally together … defining the needs of the community and responding through citizen action?'"
This year the Philadelphia event will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with speakers and voter registration outreach projects.
How to Find a MLK Day Project
Here are the primary web resources to find volunteer opportunities and MLK Day events in your community. The first two sites let you enter your city or ZIP code and specify the type of project you're seeking.
- AllForGood – A national site working with the Corporation for National and Community Service and Points of Light to provide MLK Day project listings
- VolunteerMatch – Search by date to find activities for MLK Day including virtual projects
- Greater Philadephia MLK Day of Service – The oldest and largest MLK Day event
- #MLKDay2015 – It's where people will post ideas, photos and project updates on Twitter throughout the holiday weekend
If you want to go somewhere more familiar, check with your church, synagogue or community center to see if it has an event planned.
My temple in Washington, D.C., for example, is hosting an open-house type volunteerapalooza — people will show up at 10 a.m. or later and pick from a variety of projects from preparing food for a local shelter to sorting clothing donations, assisting for as long as they can.
Dining and Dialogue
If you'd like to go beyond traditional volunteering and engage more deeply in a discussion of social issues, you might try attending one of the many Sunday Suppers around the country.
Points of Light, the national service organization, promotes these gatherings as a way to continue King's legacy by encouraging people to share a meal and talk in small groups about social problems and ways to address them.
Points of Light hopes 100,000 people will participate in a Sunday Supper this year and has published a guide with recipes and conversations starters to help hosts plan the gatherings.
Organizers and participants who were chatting about the Sunday Supper program on Huffington Post Live Wednesday said this type of gathering is especially pertinent this year given the recent protests over events in Ferguson, Mo. and other communities. Organizers hope that people will share a meal on Sunday and then serve together as volunteers on Monday, putting their conversations into action.
"Having good, thoughtful conversation together in community is a great way to spend your MLK day weekend. Serving is a great way to honor King's legacy and also a great way to create meaning in your life," Points of Light President Tracy Hoover said on Huffington Post. "Get out this weekend, volunteer … together, have a great meal with people you may not see every day, and have a plan for action."
Projects For All Ages
Delores Morton, president of programs for Points of Light, says there will be many MLK Day projects to choose from, for all ages and all levels of experience.
“It's more than showing up to plant flowers" or paint a school, she says. Volunteers "can show up to help with a marketing plan or HR issues and put their professional skills to use."
And if you're not able to volunteer this weekend, says Morton, you can sign up to become a tutor or participate in ongoing projects throughout the year.
If you'd like to extend your commitment beyond January 19, consider pledging hours of service at Serve.gov, the website of the Corporation for National and Community Service and United We Serve, which is the White House initiative to support citizen volunteer efforts.
We hope you enjoy your long weekend and that if you do participate in a MLK Day-related event or volunteer, you'll tell us what you did and how it went in the comments section below.