MLK Day of Service provides volunteer opportunities for students

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Photographs taken by Travis Atwell

While many see Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an opportunity to relax from school or work, members of Radford University have established a program providing an opportunity to give back to the community and surrounding area.

The director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Crasha Townsend and instruction librarian Craig Arthur created their “Day of Service” project to encourage students and faculty to “make it a day on, not a day off” and use the holiday as an opportunity to serve the community.

“Service is important to me. Any way I can find to give back to the community, I love to be a part of. This particular service is  about time. We’re taking a day that people can choose to sleep in on… and wake up early in the morning to serve the populations that need our help,” Townsend said. 

It was established through the CDI, RU’s library and the Scholar-Citizen Initiative.

“There’s been a push to shift the idea of MLK day from a day off from work or a day off from school into a day about community service,” Arthur said.

Last year marked their first drive, accumulating over 60 student and faculty volunteers. Arthur and Townsend coordinate with existing service groups and send their volunteers off to help in any way the can, spreading their force across multiple towns and organizations.

This year, the number of volunteers more than doubled, as 134 volunteers offered their time and effort to 12 local service organizations.

One group worked with Feeding America, an organization that donates expired but usable goods. Another volunteered with Beans and Rice, a non-profit organization founded by Radford alumni, helping elementary students assemble first-aid kits.

Earnst Ilang-Ilang, a graduate student and graduate SGA representative, served as a site supervisor for a group assisting a sufferer of brain and spine trauma.

“It was really nice to see this man who had suffered brain trauma [who] couldn’t lift anything at all. It was very rewarding, to say the least, just to see his eyes after we had done everything. I don’t think I would replace that with anything,” said Ilang-Ilang

Another group spent the day at Pulaski Daily Bread, a soup kitchen that operates every week day serving a hot meal and providing stock food for community members in need. These volunteers spent the afternoon serving food, sweeping, cleaning and conversing with the diners.

Sierra Richardson, a student and member of Zeta Phi Beta, saw the Day of Service as a great opportunity for doing more for the New River Valley community.

“It’s a great thing to do. It’s a fulfilling thing… helping somebody less fortunate,” said Richardson.

Dr. Erin Webster-Garrett also participated in the Day of Service. She sees it as a “phenomenal” opportunity for both students and faculty to get help those in desperate need of service.

“The issues can be overwhelming, but the service day itself was anything but somber. There was a lot of laughter and even though we all met as strangers, I think we each left feeling like we had made new connections—with each other and with our host community,” she said.

Townsend addressed one of the unfortunate phenomena of living in an often insulated campus community: the lack of integration with the larger New River Valley community outside of the university.

“I think oftentimes we seem like we’re in this silo. But Radford is… part of the community. I think this is a great way to meet people and have students see areas… that they might not have seen before,” she said.

Webster-Garrett shares this idea, and believes that community outreach is vital for Radford students to gain a perspective of the area in which they are spending their college years.

“I’ve heard from more than one person how much they appreciated learning about hunger in our community, for example, and to be a part of local efforts to address that problem,” she said.

The Day of Service not only provides an opportunity for people to use a day off to provide community service, it also helps honor the holiday’s namesake.

Webster-Garrett shares the belief in honoring Martin Luther King Jr. through the Day of Service.

“Most compelling for me was a new awareness of what it means to actively engage with others in building a beloved community, a legacy of Dr. King’s that I hope we all embrace during this year’s MLK’s Day of Service,” she said.

 Arthur believes that this is a great way for students to help give back to their community on their day off.

 “Not everybody has the opportunity that we have. I think it’s kind of a responsibility of being in those positions to give back. We’re in a privileged position to give our time back to others. There’s a lot of folks in this area who aren’t doing so great, so the least we can do is try to help out where we can. I know it’s just one day, but it’s a start,” he said.

Arthur, Townsend and many other volunteer organizers are working tirelessly to make the day a staple event on the Radford University calendar. They hope to see the numbers grow each year and work with more service and RU organizations in order to make a lasting and profound difference in the community.