Martin Luther King Jr. day is celebrated on January 18th this year. Since 1994, the holiday has been transformed into a national day of service, encouraging Americans to get out into their communities and volunteer in honor of the civil rights leader.
There are many organizations here in Delaware that rely on the support of their volunteers to protect the environment, save lives and help those who need it.
And Delaware Public Media’s Roman Battaglia reports those groups seethe Martin Luther King Day of Service as more than just a day.
“On January 18th we have a national day of service which highlights Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. So this day of service focuses on giving back to your community. There’s a quote that Dr. King has that talks about everybody can serve no matter what walk of life you’re in, anybody who has a heart to serve, can be of service.”
That’s Kanani Munford, Senior administrator of Volunteer Delaware. The state agency connects people with volunteer opportunities throughout the state.
There are hundreds of nonprofits and community organizations in Delaware, focusing on every aspect of life in the state.
Many non-profits run tight ships, they operate on small staff’s and rely on the support of the community to help them achieve their goals.
One nonprofit in southwest Sussex County, the Nanticoke River Watershed Conservancy, depends on a volunteer base to protect Delaware’s natural lands for future generations, says Marlene Mervin, Director of the conservancy.
“We just have one staff, and that would be me. We do have a ten member board of directors and quite a few volunteers.”
The conservancy owns a little over 500 acres of land around the Nanticoke River, meant to offer wildlife habitat, walking trails and improve water and air quality in the region.
Harry Brake is one of the board members of the conservancy. He says visibility of the organization and educating Delawareans about the lands available for them to use is really important.
“We had a clean up day, a community day a couple months back and so that was really overwhelming because we had 22 or 21 projects that actually got completed and that’s the first time but we got a little taste of seeing. Like a lot of people don’t know what happens at the Nanticoke and they don’t realize a lot of these resources are in their very own community.”
The role of a volunteer is wide ranging. At the Blood Bank of Delmarva, volunteers not only greet people when they come in and hand out refreshments after a blood donation, says Tony Prodo, communications specialist at the organization.
“Every single one of our donors, blood donors, is a volunteer. That’s per FDA regulations. If a nurse hangs up a bag of red blood cells you’ll see volunteer blood donor on that bag. So when you think about it volunteers comprise the bulk of our operations.”
For many people, the MLK Day of Service is a way to get out and do some good for their community. However, many organizations see that one day as just a starting point to introduce people to the world of volunteering, says Munford.
“So you’re introduced to a great opportunity on January 18th, great. But we want you to stay involved. We want you to continue to volunteer. So we can educate you on ways to get involved in the community and then you can sign up to be a volunteer long term. So that’s ultimately, from the State Office of Volunteerism’s perspective, we want individuals to continue to volunteer in our community. This is a great springboard, a great day to be potentially introduced to serving our community but we want you to stay involved.”
Munford stresses the need for volunteers is year round. While some groups, especially ones that work out in nature, hold big events to clean up the river or plant native species — other organizations, like the Blood Bank of Delmarva, can’t.
Angela Williamson is the volunteer coordinator with the Blood Bank.
“We’re not like a beach cleanup where you can have a hundred people show up and work on one day. So the blood bank we need people to make their appointments — so MLK day would be a great day to put in a volunteer application, set up their appointment to donate blood, come help us out in whatever way, shape or form they can.”
Some groups don’t even have the capability to hold events on MLK day, regardless of a global pandemic.
Nivette Perez-Perez is the volunteer coordinator with the Center for the Inland Bays.
“Normally the January and the winter season is a little slower for us because we are in the planning stages of all the programs that are to come for the very busy spring, summer and fall. So normally MLK falls in this odd time of the year when we are trying to report from last year and also kinda present a little bit about what we are gonna be doing in the next year.”
The MLK day of service offers that opportunity to highlight the important work nonprofits do in the state and show people how to get involved with them.
Volunteer Delaware is planning a virtual event all day on the 18th, bringing together organizations like the Blood Bank of Delmarva, Code Purple and Heart Art to show people how they can start volunteering and ways to help their community from home.
Heart Art will be hosting a virtual card making party to send Valentines and goody bags to veterans for Valentines Day.
The agency will also host an awards show that night, recognizing individuals and groups that have made significant contributions to the community.
Brake from the Nanticoke River Watershed conservancy is also hosting an event.
“We’re one of the organizations that has a 30 minute spot that day. And it’s just to highlight different opportunities that are volunteer, that individuals in the community would be able to participate in the theme of Martin Luther King; giving back to the community promoting each other, promoting diversity.”
Brake says a big goal of presenting on MLK day is to provide visibility for the organization. Showing people this resource available to them in their backyard will help the organization when they need volunteers to help.
On top of the virtual event hosted by Volunteer Delaware, there are also a multitude of events happening in person in Wilmington, including a cleanup at the Warehouse in Wilmington, a march through the city, and a city-wide cleanup hosted by the Delaware Nature Society.
One thing that’s been great for many organization’s visibility is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brake says because more people are looking for ways to be outside and get some fresh air, they’ve discovered many of the trails the conservancy owns.
Perez-Perez from the Center for the Inland Bays says they’ve also seen a lot more people visiting.
“The other part that many people are excited about, too, and now with COVID-19 we have seen an increase in visitiations, is our stewardship in the James Farm Ecological Preserve. The James Farm Ecological Preserve is managed by the center. And because of COVID we have seen an increase in visitations; people looking for ways to connect with nature, relax, walk, get out of your houses,” she says. “So we definitely have a lot of opportunities for people to learn more about the james farm and some of these volunteer opportunities. For example, we are organizing tours so volunteers can help us lead those tours, we do litter cleanups, we do invasive species plant controlling at James Farm, grass cutting and the possibilities are endless. Like I said, we always try to match the interest of the volunteer with the projects that we offer.”
And Munford notes the timing of MLK Day of Service at the beginning of the year, makes it a great way to incorporate service into a New Year’s Resolution.
“As you are preparing for great things in 2021, let volunteerism be a part of your goal setting. Choose an organization that you’re passionate about! Find a cause that’s important to you, then, contact the organization or go to our website which is volunteer.delaware.gov. Go to the website, most likely your organization is there, and then you can find out how you can give back to your community.”
Munford adds there are lots of ways to volunteer, and people can commit as much or as little time as they’d like.
Plus, there are also opportunities to volunteer remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which Munford hopes to present during her agency’s virtual MLK Day of Service.