Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy through Public Service

5 minutes read time
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is seen in Washington, DC.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is seen in Washington, DC.

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy through Public Service

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice, and economic opportunity for all. The incredible lessons he inspired are taught today in schools globally. His powerful words and speeches replay on television and are often quoted on social media, and his bold vision continues to provide hope and inspiration to the world. But what inspired the United States’ Congress to designate the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday as a national day of service in 1994, was Dr. King’s commitment to service for all.

 “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This holiday -- recognized the third Monday of each January -- is an opportunity for Americans to honor Dr. King’s legacy through service.

“Importantly, in paying tribute to Dr. King, we are reminded that the duty lies with each of us to fulfill the vision of his life’s work. Let us use our time, talents, and resources to give back to our communities and help those less fortunate than us. ”

-President Donald J. Trump, 2018 Martin Luther King Day Proclamation

Volunteer service is a powerful tool that unites us around a common purpose and builds strong communities. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many are inspired to put these core principles of citizenship and service into action. Today, we’d like to highlight some of the stories of exchange visitors to the United States who were also inspired to give back to American communities and those at home.

Ghanaian student Eric Darko had never seen a food bank prior to spending time in Seattle on a State Department International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). “I had never seen a food bank before. The thought of hungry people coming in and picking up food really touched me,” he said. Following his program, Eric launched Eastern Harvest Food Bank, the first food bank in Ghana with warehouse operations.

Eric Darko's Eastern Harvest Food Bank in Ghana.

(Eric Darko photo)

Lebanese Fulbright student Lea arrived in Houston, Texas just a few weeks before Hurricane Harvey hit. Describing her time volunteering at a Houston Food Bank Lea said, “Despite the tragedy that hit Houston, leaving the entire city terribly flooded, we were all united with one goal: to help people in need of aid, to reach out to the citizens who lost their homes, and to ensure the safety and health of the community by providing clean water and food necessary to support the homeless families.”

Fulbright students who volunteered in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey volunteer at a food bank in Houston, Texas.

Fulbright students who volunteered in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey volunteer at a food bank in Houston, Texas.

For the past three years, J-1 International Exchange Visitors have volunteered at the New York City Marathon. More than 1,400 participants– including students, interns, au pairs, and research scholars – provided water and moral support to nearly 50,000 runners in 2017. “It was the most beautiful experience of my life.” said Marie Liebschner, a former marathon volunteer and au pair from France. “I gave water to a mother who had lost her daughter, to a father who pushed his son in a wheelchair, and to a Syrian who fled his country and ran the 26.2 miles while wearing the hijab.”

J-1 program participants hand out refreshments and cheer-on marathon runners. (State Department photo)

Upon returning to Pakistan after his Fulbright program in Arizona State University (ASU) where he completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Hasaan made a personal vow to do his part in solving Pakistan’s perennial energy crisis. Utilizing the Fulbright alumni network, and connections made at ASU, Hasaan began a project to deliver access to energy through a solar home systems project in the rural villages of Sindh province.

Hassaan Idrees, 2014-2016, Pakistan (right) taking a selfie with kids from the village of Revi ji Dhani, excited to see lightbulbs which will allow them to play and study until late in the evenings.

Hassaan Idrees, Fulbright Alumnus from Pakistan (right).

This week, Fulbrighters in Washington, D.C. are assisting with area beautification, park cleanups, as well as sorting and stocking at local shelters. And in Pensacola, Florida Brazilian Youth Ambassadors are distributing books at a local Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.

These are just a few examples of how Dr. King’s legacy has not only been ingrained in American society, but also inspire a broad and continuing spirit of giving and charitability even beyond the United States. Each year, international youth program participants volunteer to perform approximately 125,000 community service hours.

As we answer Dr. King’s call to serve we hope you will join the hundreds of thousands of people who will volunteer for a good cause or community activity today, and every day.

Follow @ECAatState and @StateIVLP on Twitter for more examples of international exchange students honoring Dr. King’s legacy and the American value of service.

About the Author: Michael Cavey serves in the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.