Everybody Can Be Great Because Everybody Can Serve*

Celebrating the Martin King Luther Jr. holiday was never much of a celebration when I grew up. The public school I attended didn’t recognize the day as a holiday, so my grandmother would make my siblings and me stay home from school in memory of what Martin Luther King Jr. did for our nation. As I grew up, I often wondered what purpose it served to spend a day off in observation of a man who spent his life so actively involved in service. For years, many people have chosen to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a day to celebrate diversity with speakers, programs or a day off in observation of his great accomplishments. But on January 19th, 2009, everyone can benefit by also celebrating the holiday as a National Day of Service.

In 1994, Congress transformed the King holiday into a national day of volunteer service. Since then, volunteers have turned out on the holiday in record numbers for many nonprofit organizations, ready to help serve others in the community. Although the concept of community service as part of the King celebration had a slow start, recent years have shown ever-growing involvement from volunteers, nonprofit organizations, elected officials and corporations. In 2008, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service website reported the holiday as the “largest ever” with over 500,000 volunteers serving in over 5,000 projects nationwide.

So what does that mean for you?

For nonprofit organizations, it means a chance to utilize volunteers to complete service projects in record numbers or contribute to goals. Service for Peace in Louisville Ky. used the holiday as a kick start to 40 Days of Peace, aiming to reach their goal of 250,000 people making a pledge to better communities.

For community members, it means a chance to see neighborhoods transformed. With projects like 700 volunteers restoring a historic neighborhood in Miami, 20,000 volunteers cleaning homeless shelters, restoring a creek, and repairing homes in Washington, D.C., and over 2,000 volunteers restoring three public schools in New Orleans.

For government officials, it’s a chance to align themselves with constitutes in a way that shows compassion for others and a proactive love for the community.

For corporations, the holiday is an opportunity to build relationships with community members and community serving organizations by demonstrating that their companies care about more than the bottom line.

For ordinary individuals, it means that you can contribute to greatness.

Service as a measurement for greatness is a concept that Martin Luther King Jr. echoed in 1968, when he told a crowd in Atlanta that “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” In that speech, he challenged the conventional views of greatness when he said,

“You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Forty years later, MLK Jr. is still motivating ordinary citizens to answer the call to greatness by serving others in their communities.

Service was so important to MLK Jr. that he used it as a measurement for his own greatness. In the same speech that I quoted above, he told the crowd that if they were around on the day of his funeral, not to mention his numerous awards. He wanted to be remembered as one who “tried to give his life serving others,” and one who “tried to love and serve humanity.” So it is befitting that as we give him honor, we do it in a way that brings honor to the way he wanted to be remembered, with service.

Michigan Nonprofit Association is helping do just that. Through Michigan Campus Compact, students from five member institutions

CE Fellows

Kathryn Yaros and Charles Pelham-Ashley, U of M-Dearborn

have committed themselves to creating MLK Day of Service projects that impact disadvantaged youth, while encouraging their peers to do the same. Michigan Campus Compact has brought together diverse students from Olivet College, Delta College, Schoolcraft College, University of Michigan – Flint and University of Michigan – Dearborn to participate in the first student service “cohort” called the Campus Engagement Fellowship. The fellowship is designed to build student leaders who can contribute to MLK Jr.’s idea of greatness through service.

If you or your organization would like to get involved with the holiday, log on to www.MLKDay.gov and sign up to be a MLK Day of Service volunteer or register a volunteer project of your own. We would love to know about your project ideas, hear about a past service event that is particularly meaningful to you, or see photos of your day of service and share them with our readers. Just remember, whatever you decide to do on the King holiday, make it great.

*This excerpt from “The Drum Major Instinct” by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 speaks volumes about ordinary people and service.

“…everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

dorthyNote: This post is authored by guest blogger Dorthy Beemon. Dorthy is a 2008 graduate of Central Michigan University. She graduated with a degree in Integrated Public Relations and minor in Public Affairs. Dorthy serves as the Coordinator for Volunteer Mobilization for Michigan Campus Compact.



Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. Visit MLKDay.gov.


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