A day on, not off

My wife and I made a classic rookie mistake this past Christmas. Knowing we’d be on the road for the holiday, we tried to find a place where we could volunteer our time on Dec. 24 and 25. Armed with Google search results, we began making calls to various soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the hope we could be of some help.

We quickly learned that Christmas is the one time of year when there is an overabundance of volunteers for this type of work. We were turned away by 14 different organizations before Bread and Roses, an outreach program providing free meals and clothing to the Lawrence, Mass., community since 1980, told us to report for duty at their Christmas Eve meal. The soup kitchen, open five nights a week, “prepares a three-course meal, homemade soup to dessert, for more than 150 people — men, women and children who have to be or want to be there.”

When we showed up, we were thanked profusely, but told that too many volunteers had already shown up. Like Mary and Joseph themselves, we were having trouble finding a place to hunker down. We made a second round of calls, this time asking local soup kitchens and shelters if we could drop off any needed supplies (food, clothes, blankets, etc.). To our surprise, they had all they needed — turns out that donations are highest around Christmas.

Pulled over on the side of the road, we began calling animal rescues in the area, hoping we could perform some good deed to commemorate the day. The few that were open couldn’t think of any pressing needs.

Every call ended the same way: “It’s a good problem to have, but we already have some much help this week. We could really use you next week. And the week after that!”

The fact is that the holiday season brings out the best in us, but it brings it out at the same time. What we need are a few more of those seasons spread throughout the year. Outside of Thanksgiving, no other federal holiday encourages service in the same way. Or so I thought.

Martin Luther King Day, the only federal holiday named after a person not wearing a powdered wig, was designated by Congress as a national day of service in 1994.

It’s also the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service — a “day on, not a day off.” The MLK Day of Service is a part of United We Serve, the President’s national call to service initiative. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. In keeping with the teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Corporation for National and Community Service states that, “The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community.” Or, as Dr. King himself once said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”

This year’s commemoration of the MLK Day of Service coincides with the 57th Presidential Inauguration, and in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, what better way to do something tangible to make our piece of the world a better place?

“The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

You can search for local volunteer opportunities in our community or plan your own project at http://mlkday.gov. Some of the opportunities you’ll find there include the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Conference, which will take place from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at Wexler-Grant Community School, 55 Foote St. in New Haven. The conference, which includes a continental breakfast and lunch, features educational workshops for youths and adults on financial literacy, health and wellness, empowering young men, and storytelling, among others (www.akanewhaven.org).

You could also join Habitat for Humanity’s Suffolk staff and Habitat AmeriCorps volunteers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as they assist the Lighthouse Mission in their hunger outreach.

We will be conducting street outreach, providing food in Coram, N.Y., from noon to 1 p.m. in the Home Depot parking lot at the corner of Route 112 and Middle Country Road. The Lighthouse Mission exists to feed the hungry and help the homeless by sharing God’s love with people in need in practical ways. Lighthouse Mission’s commitment is to feed the poor, but their goal is to empower people to overcome poverty and live purpose-filled lives (www.lighthousemission.net).

Donate any new or gently worn coat in collection boxes located at the Burlington Coat Factory on Barnum Avenue in Stratford (onewarmcoat.org).

FoodCorps service members across the state will be participating in the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service through America’s Sunday Supper events or through direct service activities (https:// foodcorps.org/our-structure/foodcorps-fellows).

Find even more local opportunities at http://createthegood.org (just enter your ZIP code to refine your search).

Lastly, you could perform a Google search of your own for service opportunities in your area. The one thing my wife and I realized from our voluntary debacle was that real service is needed all year, and that part of our service is finding those times when our help is most needed.

Have a wonderful and productive MLK Day!

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him a rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.