On Monday, the nation celebrated the life of the great Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible and impactful leader of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The MLK holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, 15 years after King’s assassination.
Eleven years later, in hopes of carrying his actions and messages of service and sacrifice well into future generations, the federal government took the holiday one step further by designating MLK Day as a Day of Service which challenges Americans to volunteer in honor of King.
I always hope that some of those who did have the day off did something in their communities in his honor. I also hope that it becomes addictive and that Day of Service becomes a Lifetime of Service.
God knows we need it. Nowhere near enough people serve.
Have you ever wondered why it seems like you see the same people engaged in the efforts of your local non-profits, churches, fire companies, and youth organizations? It’s not an illusion. Those tireless souls really are involved in everything.
They not only want to be, but they have to be because so few are giving up their time. The situation is surprisingly bad in the Empire State.
AmeriCorps produces a report that looks at volunteerism rates across the nation. Looking at the last 4 years of activity, the Empire State ranks 49th, with just 19% of our residents volunteering; compare that to first-ranked Utah (43%) and our neighbors like Vermont (33%) and Pennsylvania (28%).
The lack of participation is pretty universal when you break down the demographics. In earlier reports, it was found 20% of New York teenagers volunteer, while only 14% of college-aged adults volunteer. Only 16% of those aged 25 to 34 give of themselves while those aged 35 to 44 see the highest participation rate at 24%. Jump ahead to Baby Boomers in the 55 to 64 age bracket and 20% of them volunteer in the Empire State.
Think about the depth of the situation: Less than 1 out of every 5 residents lends a hand to the community at large.
That is, in a way, counterintuitive, because we should have one of the higher participation rates based on need alone.
New York is the 17th most-impoverished state in the Union. 11% of our population is disabled. 16% of the state’s population are senior citizens -- and that number is much higher in Upstate. 18% of New Yorkers drop out of school. There are almost 2,000 volunteer fire departments in the state. All of those factors scream “help!”
So, what can we do?
For starters, if you or your family have ever partaken in an event or club run by volunteers (Easter egg hunts, Boy Scout troops, little league teams, food pantry distribution, etc.) or had a property or life saved by unpaid first responders, thank those who made that all possible. A simple “thank you” goes a long ways in validating, maintaining and inspiring their efforts.
Secondly, take the time to participate yourself. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Go out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter. It’s challenging, fun, and extremely rewarding. There’s an unmatched joy that’s had in giving and watching others receive the services you provide.
MLK knew that, and he said it best, in various ways:
“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
“Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
"We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind."
Let us not let his legacy become relegated to just a day off from work or school. Let us do as he did, and commit to our lives to making everyone’s lives – theirs and ours -- better.
From the 18 January 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News