For kids who might not be acquainted with Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., January 18th, 2010 might just be another day off. Congress, however, hopes “to make the holiday a day ON, where people of all ages and backgrounds come together to improve lives, bridge social barriers, and move our nation closer to the ‘Beloved Community’ that King envisioned.” In 1994, Congress passed legislation encouraging people to serve on MLK Day; since then, government has taken an active role in helping citizens rally for service in honor of King. January is a month for resolutions, and now is the time to resolve to do your part and make MLK Day a “day ON” for both you and your children.
Fueled by the momentum of his upcoming inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has instituted a “Renew America Together” initiative, citing that this is a “critical time” for Americans to unite and work through common challenges. Kids can be just as much a part of this as adults; often it’s not that young adults are apathetic about volunteering, but that they don’t know how or where to start. To that end, Obama’s inaugural committee has created a website that matches volunteers with service projects in their areas. The website my.mlkday.gov contains a clickable map and descriptions of service projects ranging in scope from long-term national projects to day-long local activities. Involvement as outlined on the website is comprised of four parts: choosing an opportunity, pledging to act, serving on January 19th (or beyond), and reporting back.
At the national level, websites such as idealist.com and volunteer.gov/gov also contain databases that can help kids tailor their charity to a geographical area, interest and age group. Many large-scale organizations post opportunities here, such as Goodwill, Junior Blind Olympics, Walk MS and many others. You may consider helping your children match volunteering through these organizations to something that is a bit closer to home—if they have a classmate with diabetes, they might fundraise for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, for example. If you and your children live near a federally-protected wildlife area, check to see if the National Park Service is sponsoring a clean-up day. National organizations are taking advantage of MLK Day to activate service on a broad scale, and most of these groups are used to working with kids.
Because it is expected that the number of volunteers will exceed the number of service opportunities, citizens are also encouraged to organize themselves. MLK Day is the perfect day to set a family service goal and go local with your volunteering. First, consider your children’s interests and skills. Are they learning about the environment in school? You could mobilize a small group to pick up trash at a local park. If your kids are avid readers or musicians, they might volunteer to tutor at an afterschool program or play piano at a local retirement home. Other activities that are kid-friendly include setting up dog walking for elderly neighbors, sorting donations at a local food pantry, and book drives.
Whether you volunteer nationally or locally, you will want to consider two other factors that may not be immediately apparent when you decide how to serve with your children on MLK Day: your children’s needs, and their own attitudes towards volunteering. While a three-hour shift at a homeless shelter may seem like nothing to you, your six-year-old may become restless after an hour. Pace yourself and know your children; consider not only your child’s attention span, but also his or her motor skills in choosing your activity. Finally, check your own attitude. Children pick up easily on frustration, anxiety and boredom, so make sure that you are actively engaged in volunteering, too. Focus on creating a positive environment for your kids and instilling in them a passion for aiding others.
King once said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” Not only will volunteering teach your kids important lessons of tolerance, sacrifice and altruism, it will draw you closer together as a family. As you respond to this call to service on MLK Day you may find that your philanthropy lasts well beyond MLK Day and becomes a lifelong habit for you and your children.