Students participate in MLK Day service projects

by Clare Gates, Staff Writer

The third Monday of January comes and goes every year without calling much attention to itself compared to more commercial national holidays. On January 15, however, two days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Saint Vincent College’s Office of Service Learning and Community Outreach, the Multicultural Student Coalition, the Alpha Lambda Delta National Honors Society, and the Alumni Association honored the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1964 through the school’s third annual Martin Luther King Day Challenge. 61 students and several faculty members from Saint Vincent participated in this nationwide college event in which teams planned or participated in service work at local volunteer sites, including a group home for teenagers, homes for the elderly, nonprofit centers and a rehabilitation center for the homeless.

The MLK Challenge is a relatively new tradition not only at Saint Vincent, but also on a national scale. In 1994, Congress officially designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as the first national holiday that is also an official day of service, a day now known as “a day on, not a day off.”

Senior Stephanie Tate said, “Martin Luther King Day should not just be a day when children do not have school or for stores to have sales. Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist. We should get up and do something for the community.”

In recent years, college campuses have adopted this perspective on the holiday, although any organization can hold a Challenge. Director of the Office of Service Learning Kelly King cited Appalachian State University as the first college to hold an MLK Challenge event in 2000. According to RHD and Office of Service Learning employee Reggie Butler, Saint Vincent’s Multicultural Student Coalition organized MLK Day activities before 2009, but “There was no service prior to the inception of the MLK Challenge. The idea was conceptualized and initiated by Dean Kaylor.”

Saint Vincent’s volunteer partners this year included nonprofit organizations and homes for the needy with which the college was already familiar, such as Adelphoi Village, Faith in Action, Loyalhanna Tower, Ligonier Gardens, Mt. View, Nature Park Commons, New Alexandria Senior Center, Union Mission of Latrobe, Eastmont Estates and Alpha Phi Omega.

Although the organizers of the 2011 Challenge were familiar with these work sites, the students who arrived at Alcuin Hall on Saturday neither knew which site they would visit nor their teammates’ identities. The Office of Service Learning attempts to preserve this element of surprise every year in order to encourage students to leave their areas of comfort and delve into a new service experience. In spite of the fact that a Steelers game was scheduled for later that day and about twenty students who signed up did not arrive, 61 students ranging from SGA members to football players participated.

According to President of the Multicultural Student Coalition Cornelius Boggs, “Since my first year of doing the event, the number of participants has increased dramatically.”

The group was also a surprising conglomeration of race and gender on a day traditionally most popular with African Americans, and at a school where the Office of Service Learning notes that higher numbers of women than men generally attend service events.

The Martin Luther King Day Challenge not only brought students together, but also faculty members including Dean Alice Kaylor, Dr. Tim Kelly, Dr. John Aupperle, Pat Conroy and also Amy Camp, president of the alumni club council.

According to Alpha Lambda Delta President Zach Tackett, “Dr. Aupperle gave a speech on Martin Luther King Jr., his mission, his work and why we should remember him. When we walked in, some of us were ready to go, some of us were unsure of what was going to happen and some of us came for volunteer hours, but the speech made everyone understand just how important it is to serve. I realized that by getting into the spirit of service, we remember that it was small steps like ours that led to a great change in America.”

In Tate’s words, she realized that “being willing to give up an afternoon to serve others can give so much hope to a society that is often overshadowed by negativity.”

After the speech, a prayer and pizza, groups of about four members each received an appropriate amount of money depending on their particular assignment.

“We had students doing everything from painting to hanging up curtains to throwing a Steelers party,” Tate said.

Butler explained further: “The service that occurs depends on the specific site and the requests made from the sites. Service leaders who go to the Senior Centers may not only organize a socializing party that involves games, snacks and music, but may also assist in maintaining the upkeep of the facility. For Adelphoi Village, service participants have arranged makeup parties for the female population. Service leaders who have ventured into Eastmont Estates have been known to engage youth there in recreational activities.”

In Tackett’s case, “We got twenty dollars to go to Walmart and buy cleaning supplies, since my group went to the home of a woman who had assisted living as part of Faith in Action. We got cleaning supplies for Mary Ann so we could use them to clean her home and then leave them for her since she can’t get out to the store; she has health problems with her knees and legs. My team went into her house and helped her in whatever way we could. We cleaned her bathroom, dusted her records, and helped her move some heavy furniture, but I think one of the most important things we did that day was give her someone to talk to. That’s what she really wanted. She was very friendly; she wasn’t afraid to tell you about some of the experiences that happened in her life. We walked out of there and felt like she could have been our aunt. You really got to know the people you were helping, feel good about yourself, and feel good about helping someone else. It was a really rewarding experience; it wasn’t just grueling service.”

Sophomore Trish Allan explained her experience: “I went to the Loyalhanna Care Center in Latrobe,” she said. “I worked on organizing and running a bingo game for the elderly residents, as well as making Valentines cards for those in the center’s care. It was truly remarkable working with the residents of the center.  The atmosphere was different from that of Saint Vincent; I was not used to working with people with a large age gap, which made me nervous.  However, once I had interacted with the residents, their enthusiasm put me at ease. Everyone I interacted with was delighted for the company and for the entertainment our humble bingo game provided.

Tate commented, “Sometimes spending time with individuals is just as valuable as building a bridge.”

The annual Martin Luther King Day Challenge is more than just an excuse to do service work and feel good about making others feel good, however; it is a monument to King’s timeless message.

According to Kelly King, “Martin Luther King’s message was that everybody can serve, and there’s always a time for service. There is never an opportunity where you can’t serve another person. We are all called to serve each other; that’s what community means. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission is also linked very closely with the Benedictine values such as community and hospitality.”

Butler summarized the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Challenge in this way: “The major goal is to actualize Martin Luther King’s mission, which is for all people of all backgrounds, colors, religions and creeds to band together in order to uplift the downtrodden with love.”

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