How to Help Others on MLK Day of Service

Martin Luther King, Jr memorial monument in Washington, DC

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January can be the coldest month of the year, but it could be the warmest when it comes to good-heartedness. That is because so many people celebrate the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. by extending a helping hand on one special day.

The MLK Day of Service, held the third Monday in January, inspires thousands of people to defy the cold and serve others in ways ranging from providing meals and improving the environment to sparking discussions about equality or just helping their neighbors.

Every year the MLK Day of Service seems to inspire a January miracle of good will.

The History Behind “A Day of Service.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became a national holiday in 1983. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act. This made the holiday a day of community service, anti-violence campaigning, and interracial discussions. Although you might think getting these acts passed would be a slam-dunk, it wasn’t. Many fights were waged between supporters and opponents as the nation struggled to leave its racist past behind.

Today, MLK Day might just seem like another holiday from work and school, but it should represent much more. While many employees get the day off, the holiday’s real purpose is to encourage “A Day of Service” on a national and local level.

Many organizations and programs use the holiday to carry on MLK’s good work. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, college campuses, nonprofits, and activist groups share his message. Their actions make a difference in today’s world — just as Martin Luther King, Jr. did all those years ago.

What Can You Do on MLK Day?

If you are wondering what you can do to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory, take a peek at these institutions and organizations. You can see what they are doing to make a difference, and maybe even join in.

Universities and Colleges

Since 1990, the University of Iowa has committed to promoting service and open discussions on MLK Day. The university plans an entire week of events and hosts nonprofits to encourage students to give back to the community. Students are invited to organize discussions, and many faculty members speak about equality and service. They even provide food for students who sign up — always a good way to recruit college kids!

The University of Washington also holds a large MLK Day of Service event, recruiting nearly 2,000 volunteers. Volunteers work on day-long projects in King County, WA, including mentorships, community gardening, public discussions, and food and clothing drives. With United Way of King County, UW manages to connect local nonprofits and causes with people who are driven to serve.

By encouraging engagement on this holiday, these universities promote a culture of service. If you are a college student, check into your own school’s MLK Day events. If you live close to a college campus and want to volunteer, see if you can sign up for an event. If you do not find any events, create one yourself! You can also contact the college to see if they would be interested in starting an event.

American Civil Liberties Union Chapters

The ACLU is an organization that defends the rights of the Constitution — which includes the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On MLK Day, many ACLU chapters host rallies and “Marades” — Martin Luther King, Jr. parades. The organization also raises awareness for issues surrounding infringements of the Constitution, and promote equal rights for all.

The work of the ACLU aims to prevent damages to the civil rights Martin Luther King, Jr. fought so hard to gain. To sign up, become a member of the ACLU, and continue the good work of MLK, check out your local chapter.


Since 2009, Global Citizens 365 has become one of the largest MLK Day event organizers. This year will mark Greater Philadelphia’s 22nd "MLK Day of Service," but MLK365 events are also held in Delaware and New Jersey. The organization connects with local nonprofits, food banks, schools, and faith groups to create a broad range of volunteer opportunities.

They also organize advocacy events, panel discussions, donation and fundraising affairs, and community concerts. No matter what kind of volunteering or community support you want to provide, MLK365 has an opportunity for you. If you live in Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New Jersey, check out their impressive list of available projects.

The Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA strives to keep our air, water, and land clean. They also attempt to engage local communities to help ease environmental concerns. Since 2012, on MLK Day, the EPA has encouraged local volunteers to clean up neighborhoods and “green up” community parks and open spaces. They also raise awareness about the effects of waste and overconsumption through community education. 

Some of the most fundamental human (and Constitutional) rights are the rights to life, liberty, and happiness. However, pollution, dwindling resources, and overconsumption can compromise these freedoms.

If you want to help your community, you can find many green organizations to volunteer with on the Idealist website or contact your local Parks and Wildlife Department. If you want to help improve the environment on a national level, a volunteer with national organizations. Here’s a list of the 20 largest environmental organizations.

Carry on MLK’s Legacy, Create a New Generation of Service

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, hundreds of thousands of people volunteer on MLK Day. As a result of so much attention, charitable giving goes up and nonprofits, large and small, enjoy the help and publicity. And we all focus on changing the inequality and poverty that still affects millions of people.

However, more than that, MLK Day means an immense personal commitment on the part of thousands of individuals. These are the people who continue to answer Martin Luther King, Jr.’s question:

“What are you doing for others?”

All of us can volunteer, donate to worthy causes, and try to make a difference in our communities.

If you’re on the fence about helping out on MLK Day, consider this: People who volunteer are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who don’t.

Studies have also found that volunteers have less depression and lower risk for heart problems. While these benefits apply to all ages, they seem particularly important for older adults.

MLK’s Day of Service can be a splendid time to get the kids involved too. They can learn about history plus get some volunteer experience. Scholastic has many resources designed for MLK Day awareness that teachers and parents can use. Look for opportunities in your community for family volunteering. And check out these 12 Service Project Ideas for Kids from Points of Light.

Introduce your family to GenerationOn, a blog that features the experiences of young volunteers and families.

Do you know someone who has been an exceptional volunteer in your community? Nominate that person for the MLK Drum Majors for Service Award! 

The award encourages and inspires “ultimate” volunteering. There are two awards, one based on the number of hours a person has volunteered over a year or for their lifetime. The other award honors those little-noticed heroes who consistently serve others. The term “drum major” comes from one of Martin Luther’s speeches where he referred to himself as a “drum major for peace, justice, and righteousness.”

But most importantly, volunteer because you want to help your community. Help yourself by helping others, and spread Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message. Your efforts will not go unnoticed, and you can contribute to creating the world MLK dreamed of. It all starts with a Day of Service.

You can even take the Pledge. The Corporation for National and Community Service challenges you to take the extra step of pledging your service on MLK Day and throughout the year. Pledge the hours you plan to devote to volunteering, where you will do it, and the type of work that you plan to do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world during his life and continues to do so. Moreover, thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we can all do good works in his name.