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Students Participate in Day of Service to Honor Martin Luther King Jr.

by on January 21, 2014 6:45 AM

For 250 Penn State student volunteers, Monday was not simply a day off from class or a chance to catch up on much-needed sleep.

Instead, it was a chance to give back to the community and celebrate the life of humanitarian and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 29th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration kicked off Monday morning with the annual Day of Service. The volunteer-driven community service event began at 8 a.m. with an opening celebration in Heritage Hall of the HUB-Robeson Center. Dressed in winter coats, knit hats, and MLK themed t-shirts, students braved the bitter cold and filed into coach buses and vans located outside the HUB's main entrance to be transported to various outreach programs in need of volunteers.

"On a day like today when Martin Luther King comes into play, it's a sense of community, service, being together -- and we're not even thinking about race," said Aalyiah Burrows, a sophomore studying management information systems at Penn State who chose to give up her day off to volunteer. "That's the last thing on our mind, and it's great to be intertwined with all different types of people going toward one common goal."

Kayla Shelton-Burleigh, a Penn State sophomore majoring in criminology, volunteered at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in downtown State College, preparing meals with a dozen other students. Those meals will be served at the community cafe later this week. Shelton-Burleigh said the experience was enjoyable, and made her realize the hard work you have to do in order to see improvement in the community.

"You might want change, but change just doesn't appear," Shelton-Burleigh said. "You have to work toward that change. Once you step out of your comfort zone, or out of your own little world or bubble and get more of a sense of empathy and feel for other people and the benefit for what you're doing -- it might just be a simple hello, or going to play bingo with older people -- stuff like that can really impact people."

In addition to assisting with educational events at Schlow Library and Penn State Learning, students also helped clean the Pets Come First center, an animal shelter located in Centre Hall, Pa., assisted in creating a safe and sustainable environment for mentally disabled residents at Strawberry Fields in State College, Pa., aided recycling and clean-up efforts at the Office of Physical Plant at Penn State, as well as organize donations from Penn State residence halls as part of the Trash to Treasure program.

"We really appreciate the volunteers that gave up their day off today, that got up and committed themselves to service," said Rhonda Bates, co-director of Day of Service. "I think it's a clear representation of the Penn Staters here at Penn State. We're all for giving service to not only the Penn State community, but the community abroad, especially the Centre County community, since we're all intertwined."

"All the people that volunteered are phenomenal people," added Bates, a senior majoring in human development and family studies at Penn State. "Everybody came in with bright faces, happy smiles, and when we sent them off to their service site -- they were excited about that."

"Reflect on Yesterday. Experience Today. Transform Tomorrow," the theme for this year's commemoration, was chosen by the students and faculty who sit on the MLK Commemoration Planning Committee. A poster designed by graphic design student Jake Nicolella, featuring segregated black and white birds slowly mixing together before bursting into color, was chosen from entries created by students in professor Lanny Sommese's Graphic Design 400 course and was featured prominently on t-shirts and signs around campus.

"This theme stuck out the most to us because it gets you to think about the past, think about today, and even taking it a step forward and thinking toward the future," said Lerell Richards, executive director of the commemoration's student planning committee.

"Growing up, you always did those little projects around MLK time," continued Richards, a Penn State senior majoring in psychology. "At a younger age you don't really know the significance he had, but now here at this day of service how there's people from all different races and religions -- everyone's different. No one is the same in the room that came here for today for day of service, so being able to all come together and do service together is a big part of why we focus on MLK."

In addition to Day of Service, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.'s address at Rec Hall on January 21, 1965 was played for the first time in the Foster Auditorium inside the Paterno Library for those interested in hearing the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner. The speech used to be shown on TV screens in the main lobby of the library, but received little attention since there was no place for onlookers to focus without any distractions.

Rachel Smith, a Diversity Resident Librarian at Penn State University Libraries, said the 49-year old speech still preaches lessons that resonate today, and believes that although King did much for the acceptance of diversity, there is still more work to be done.

"The biggest takeaway is to just keep his dream alive and keep pushing toward betterment," said Smith, who is also a part of the MLK Commemoration Planning Committee. "We're better than where we used to be, but we still have a long way to go."

For Kelly Oleynik, a student studying human development and family studies at Penn State, a class assignment challenged her to go out and tap into the community to get a feel for who Martin Luther King, Jr. was and what he was about. The audio broadcast of King's speech provided the perfect way to learn more about the famous activist.

"He had a lot of prophetic wisdom, and he was so Christ-like which I thought was really awesome," said Oleynik, who was working on a project for a human services organization course. "It was just enlightening. He was such a wonderful person. It's shameful that we has killed because I really think we've come far, but we haven't come far enough. We're not there, and I think he would probably agree."

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C.J. Doon is a frequent contributor to Onward State and is a former intern. A Long Island native, Doon is studying print journalism at Penn State.
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