Many volunteer on MLK Day, but what about the rest of the year?

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 1.0MB

Each year, Martin Luther King Day is considered a day of service. People across southern California are turning out to volunteer at a variety of places today. But does one day make a difference?

Deborah Brutchey and Porsha Pearson have organized more than 600 volunteers to spruce up Washington Irving Middle School, in LA’s Glassell Park. The two women work with a nonprofit called L.A. Works.

Volunteers will work to improve the lunch area and other parts of the school. Washington Irving is transitioning into a magnet school and these volunteers are coming in handy. Pearson says they’re cleaning out old storage areas.

“One is going to be a new stem lab that they’re going to build," says Pearson. "A couple more learning spaces for the kids that they need to use and then we’re reorganizing the writing center to bring in their new magnet text books.” 

Executive Director Brutchey says L.A. Works has organized this type of volunteer project for more than two decades.

“Our big days of service, like Martin Luther King Day - today - we have 1,500 people out on one day,” she says. 

Brutchey says it’s pretty easy to find volunteers for MLK Day. But some experts say that masks a bigger problem. USC sociology professor Nina Eliasoph has written several books on volunteerism, including "Making Volunteers: Civic Life After Welfare's End." She says she’s observed a trend in recent years that she calls “plug-in volunteering," meaning people give their time on the holiday, but don’t do much more.

“It’s just the first step, it’s not going to change anything in any real way," Eliasoph says. "There’s hungry people that’ll be hungry next Tuesday, they’ll be hungry again next Wednesday, it’s going to keep going and if you want to fix it you have to start thinking about the roots of the problems.” 

Eliasoph says one solution to plug in volunteering is to see the day as a launching point for activism.  

Rev. J. Edgar Boyd agrees. He’s pastor of the historic First AME Church in LA. Boyd says today is a good day for people to start working on an ongoing basis on issues such as hunger or poverty.

“Sometimes people in the community go asleep, sometimes people in City Hall, fall asleep, sometimes Congress falls asleep," says Boyd. "And it takes the vigilant activity and activation of the corpus to really get people energized and back into it.” 

Boyd says that would be the best way to honor Dr. King’s legacy.