The community—and your physical and mental health—will be better for it.

By Rozalynn S. Frazier
January 15, 2021
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As Martin Luther King Jr. Day draws near and talks of service projects are more pervasive, you may be wondering if you, too, should commemorate the day with some good acts. The answer is yes.

Here's why: The federal holiday, which takes place annually on the third Monday in January (January 18 in 2021), is a National Day of Service, and, thanks to Congress, has been since 1994. The civil rights icon, who was assassinated in 1968, recognized the power of giving back. In fact, in his 1957 "Conquering Self-Centeredness" speech, Dr. King said, "An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."

That may be one reason why comedian and TV writer Ricky Smith, founder of Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere (R.A.K.E.), a nonprofit that aims to encourage paying it forward, says that volunteering gives people a sense of purpose. "It makes you feel like you matter, that you are not necessarily helpless or hopeless," he says. "It makes you feel like you are part of something bigger, gives you a sense of community."

"The habit of helping others sharpens our sense of purpose, shares our expertise and widens our network of those working toward the same good end," adds Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, PhD, national president of The Links, Incorporated, an international nonprofit service organization comprised of more than 16,000 women of African descent.

The Benefits of Giving Back

While we may just see a good act as something we do for others, the truth is that it affects the giver, too. From making you happier to extending your life to slowing cognitive decline, volunteerism is the holy grail of health. A study in Psychology and Aging also revealed that those who performed at least 200 hours of service in a 12-month period were less likely to develop hypertension compared to their non-volunteering counterparts.

Feeling overwhelmed? Volunteering can help thwart that, too.

"It likely reduces stress levels in those that volunteer and often helps increase your social network which, in the long-run, also reduces anxiety and enhances overall life satisfaction," explains Erica Richards, MD, PhD, chair and medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Decreased reports of depressive symptoms have also been seen in people with a recent history of service to others," she says. Dr. Richards has also seen the therapeutic benefits of service firsthand in her patients.

Who Can Give Back

Anyone. Seriously. Volunteering is something that everyone can and should do. And if you have kids, get them in on the action, too.

"Volunteering and community service can help children and adolescents develop key social-emotional skills, including social awareness and empathy," explains nationally certified school psychologist Erin A. Harper, PhD, NCSP, an assistant professor of school psychology at Texas A&M University-Commerce and author of the comedic book Dear Mom, You Don't Get to Have Nice Things. "Volunteering can also foster a sense of community responsibility and help children and adolescents feel like important members of their community." Not to mention, it's "a great way for families to spend time together and step outside of their own personal or family issues," Harper says.

How Can I Volunteer?

"The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demand so much more of us," Jeffries Leonard says. "By building upon the concept of 'a day on, not a day off,' we continue the impact of Dr. King in this generation and for those to come."

Feeling inspired to give back? We thought so. Here are a few ways you can do just that.

1

Food insecurity—not having access to food because of lack of money and other resources—is a big issue right now. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 116 million households in the United States experienced food insecurity in 2019. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened this scenario. For these reasons, as well as the fact that people of color are disproportionally affected by food insecurity (Move for Hunger reports that African American households face hunger at twice the rate of white, non-Hispanic households), Jeffries Leonard says the members of The Links, Incorporated are focused on this initiative for this year’s MLK National Day of Service. Want to help mitigate this issue as well? Check out the nonprofit Food Pantries to locate one in your area where you can donate food or volunteer in-house.

2

“One of the last acts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was supporting sanitation workers: men who worked under a cloud of pollution and environmental inequity,” says Heather McTeer Toney, senior director of the nonprofit Moms Clean Air Force, a community of moms and dads focused on fighting air pollution in an effort to protect children’s health. “Supporting the environmental health of your community is not only a way of honoring the legacy of Dr. King, but also ensuring that future generations are able to realize Dr. King's dream by seeking Justice in Every Breath.

Her volunteering suggestions: clean local waterways creeks and streams in your community; support your local farmer’s market by weeding, planting, and/or harvesting; begin a letter-writing campaign to local restaurants, encouraging them to use recyclable materials instead of plastics; or have kids decorate face masks for their local sanitation workers as a gift of appreciation.

3

Going out for an easy jog? Why not commit to picking up some trash along the way. The concept, which originated in Sweden and gained traction in the U.S. in 2018, is a great way to help make the planet a priority. And with 158,000 posts on Instagram under #plogging, you certainly won’t be alone in your pursuits. Interested in helping Mother Earth, but plogging isn’t quite your style? Look to nonprofits such as Leave No Trace, Clean Trails, and Keep America Beautiful—each focuses on getting rid of litter and keeping the community and the outdoors clean.

4

Buy a pizza for a homeless man. Bring treats for furry friends at animal shelters. Give flowers to folks in assisted living facilities. These are all things Smith has personally done—along with telling a few jokes to get those he comes in contact with to laugh. They are the backbone behind R.A.K.E. “We think so macro instead of thinking micro,” Smith says. “Simply do what you are good at and do it in a way that is kind. If everyone did one act of kindness a day, the world would be a better place.”

5

COVID-19 has many in at-risk populations afraid to do simple tasks such as grocery shopping. That’s where Invisible Hands comes in. It “offers our elderly or immunocompromised neighbors a way to receive groceries and prescriptions in a safe and contactless way,” explains Benjamin Liong Setiawan, a lifestyle writer and founder of @HungryEditor, who has been helping through the organization since the onset of the pandemic. “It’s surprising how many stores don’t have a delivery service and for someone such as Doris [someone Setiawan shops for], who is in her 90s, she doesn’t use the internet much.” He also notes that doing something for someone during a time that feels so isolating can be quite therapeutic. 

6

COVID-19 has wrought havoc on the world. There have been more than 23.1 million cases and 385,000 deaths to date in the U.S. alone—and the number continues to climb. Sending a card to someone who may be isolated from their loved ones can go a long way. Plus, this act is a great way for kiddos to flex their creative muscles. Simply break out the markers, make a few cards, and then coordinate delivery with your local hospital.

Hopefully this inspires folks to think beyond this one day and choose to volunteer consistently. It’s actually something that President-Elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris are counting on—if you peruse BidenInaugural.org, the official transition website, you’ll find opportunities to serve as well as a request for your commitment to give back on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and beyond.

Remember: Service is beneficial for you and those you help, but the best part is that you never know how your act will motivate or inspire the next person to give.