'What are you doing for others?': Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy lives during day of service

January 19, 2013|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Gladys Rojas is executive director of the Comunidad Latina de Washington County. She said observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day through volunteerism is a perfect fit for Comunidad Latina, as all of the organizations workers are volunteers.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

In the mid-20th century, a black seamstress, tired after a long day at work, was thrown into jail and fined because she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus so a white man could sit down.

A 6-year-old black child was spit upon by a New Orleans mob because she wanted to go to the same school as white children.

Blacks could not eat at lunch counters or use whites-only restrooms. There were separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and black balconies in movie theaters, which also had separate stairways. And in some parts of the South, blacks were ordered to get off the sidewalk and stand in the street if a Caucasian walked by.

But a minister named Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that all Americans could be equal. And he delivered his message through nonviolent action — organizing marches and boycotts and delivering inspirational speeches.

Although thousands of men and women worked hard to bring down institutional racism in the United States, it is impossible to think of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s without King at its helm.

King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 didn't end the work he had undertaken. Instead, he continued to inspire people from all walks of life to work together to solve both local and national problems.

As America celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 21, millions of people will reflect on the life and accomplishments of the late civil rights leader.

But they also will be asked to answer what King called, life's most persistent question: "What are you doing for others?"

That is the basis for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service — an annual national event that encourages Americans to take a day on, not a day off.

In 1994, the U.S. Congress designated the federal holiday as a day of service and charged the Corporation for National Community Service with leading the effort.

According to the corporation, the day is designed to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems and move closer to King's vision of "a beloved community."

As they have in the past, hundreds of volunteers from Washington County will participate in this year's event, hoping to do their part to improve the lives of their neighbors.

Helping to organize this year's local effort is Bernadette Wagner, co-director of Volunteer Washington County, a clearinghouse for all aspects of area volunteerism.

According to Wagner, who is also host of HMTV6's "Reach Out," the day will provide individuals, government agencies, nonprofits and businesses "a chance to share their time, talents and treasure by responding to Dr. King's call to serve."

Among those who will be participating in "Day of Service" are volunteers with the Comunidad Latina de Washington County (Latin Community of Washington County).

Executive Director Gladys Rojas said four individuals from the organization will be painting the conference room at the offices of the American Red Cross of Washington County in Hagerstown.

The volunteers will be in their 20s and 30s, she said —individuals who were not yet born when Martin Luther King Jr. marched for social justice. But that doesn't mean they don't understand the significance of the day.

"The MLK Day of Service is a moment to work together to fulfill Dr. King's dream of a better America — his dream of an interracial and intercultural nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation," Rojas said. "And that is exactly the kind of nation that we want to help build — a nation where we all can live with values of equality, tolerance, hope and love. MLK's dream is very alive for Latinos. His dream for this nation is our dream, too."

Rojas said Comunidad Latina de Washington County, whose office is in downtown Hagerstown, was formed to actively and proactively address the needs of the approximately 5,300 Latinos who live in Washington County.

The group's public assistance office has been open since September of 2007, she noted, and provides such services as information about laws and regulations, referrals to counseling services, information on housing, social services and other available resources in the community, as well as providing individuals with applications for residency, citizenship and Temporary Protected Status renewals through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

"The mission of CLWC is to improve the quality of life for Latinos in Washington County by providing comprehensive educational, social and economic development services and programs," she said. "We help our members gain the necessary knowledge and skills to fully participate in the larger community by supporting the following values: motivation, assimilation, self-help, safety, security and health, success and prosperity, identity and community."

Rojas said observing Martin Luther King Day through volunteerism is a perfect fit for Comunidad Latina.

"In our more than five years of existence, nobody in CLWC has had a salary," she noted. "The three people who are currently working at our office are volunteers, including myself. Most of our volunteers have done more than 200 hours of translations and interpretation for other organizations like Head Start and Community Action Council. We have participated in many events like the Convoy of Hope,  Homeless Resource Day at REACH and Legal Aid Pro Bono Night at the Department of Social Services."

Rojas said Comunidad Latina also has organized public events with bilingual services, including the Cancer Coalition Health Expo in 2008,  the 2008 and 2009 Legal Fairs, a vaccination clinic with the Washington County Health Department in 2010 and last year's Latin American Folklore Gala.

Rojas also is involved in giving her time and talents outside of Comunidad Latina.

"I was a member of the Census Committee for 2010 and I have been participating in the Strategic Community Impact Council and on the board of Social Services since 2009," she noted.

Shakira Doleman first became involved with the national and community service program known as AmeriCorps while she was in high school. Today, she remains a part of the program and volunteers at the Washington County Community Mediation Center in Hagerstown.

The mission of the center, Doleman said, is to  provide free high-quality mediation and conflict resolution services and training to empower Washington County citizens to peacefully resolve their own conflicts.

Doleman said the WCCMC serves all Washington County residents and several surrounding communities, in addition to its re-entry mediation program at MCI, MCTC and RCI.

Headed by its current executive director, Jack Carpenter, Doleman said WCCMC "is always looking for office volunteers, as well as volunteer mediators. This specific group is led by myself, one of the center's AmeriCorps members."

Doleman said about five to 10 people will be participating in this year's MLK Day of Service. The group will be painting a house that has recently been refurbished and will be available to a family in need. The project was made possible by the Washington County Community Action Council.

But participating in this annual event is not new to Doleman.

"I first learned about MLK Day of Service a couple of years ago during a volunteer opportunity that was made available to me during my sophomore year at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania," she noted. "I was able to join the City Year crew in the revitalization of one of the parks in the Greater Philadelphia area. The best way to describe my participation is that is just felt good. I felt a positive change in my mood. It just feels good to help others."

Doleman said it feels especially rewarding to lend a helping hand as part of the MLK Day of Service.

"It's important to reach out to others in honor of Martin Luther King and his legacy," she said. "People often forget the sacrifices that others have made for them to be where they are today and how important it is to uplift and empower others. I feel that it would almost be selfish of me, with all of the things I have accomplished in my life and all of the sacrifices others have made for me, to not look back and help someone. I kind of feel like if you have too much of something you should share it. Time, money, expertise, whatever it may be — someone in the world could use it."

Doleman said she "loves the idea of MLK Day of Service."

"Whether I will be able to directly witness the fruits of my labor or not, it just feels good," she said. "It's nice to step aside from the demands of school or work and lend a hand where it's needed.

"I like to believe that I was put on this Earth for a purpose and that purpose is to help others," Doleman said. "I hope that my contributions reflect the legacy that was established by Dr. Martin Luther King."

Photos by Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

Shakira Doleman became involved with the national and community service program AmeriCorps when she was in high school. Today, she remains a part of the program and volunteers at the Washington County Community Mediation Center in Hagerstown.

Gladys Rojas is executive director of the Comunidad Latina de Washington County. She said observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day through volunteerism is a perfect fit for Comunidad Latina, as all of the organization's workers are volunteers.

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