I went to a Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky that was highly focused on service. Instead of completing service hours, each year we were required to do a different kind of service: freshman year was indirect service, sophomore year was direct service, junior year was advocacy, and senior year was an eight month project designed to incorporate all of these types of service centered around a specific issue.
My teachers used to use a metaphor to explain why all of these types of service were important. Imagine you and two friends are eating lunch by a large creek. Suddenly, you see a toddler crying while floating downstream. Of course, you jump in and save the child. But then, you see another toddler in the same situation. You jump in again and save this one too. Your two friends decide to go upstream to find out why there are toddlers in the creek, while you stay behind to rescue any more that may come. After walking upstream a few minutes, they see that toddlers are playing outside of school, but they keep falling in the creek because there is no barrier between the school and the creek. One friend begins to use rocks and logs to construct a crude fence between the toddlers and the creek to prevent any more falls. The other friend goes to the preschool teacher to ask her to consider recruiting volunteers to watch the children while they play.
You are doing the direct service. You are fixing the problem as it comes to you. The toddlers who have already fallen in need your help quickly. On the other hand, your two friends are doing indirect service and advocacy. One isn’t interacting with anyone at all, but is working to improve the safety conditions for the children by building a fence. The other is informing leadership of the problem in order to create a long term solution that will prevent the children from falling into the creek.
As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service today, think about everything MLK did for his community through his service and advocacy. He spoke out about injustice against the black community and organized protests, and today we have a lot to thank him and the other participants in the Civil Rights Movement for. However, there is still work to be done! This day of service is a call to action to use your talents to help your community.
While volunteering at a soup kitchen or pulling out weeds from a church garden is important and in high demand, not everyone can perform these tasks due to physical ability, time, or transportation.
So if you are unable to get out into your community today, remember that there are all kinds of ways you can be involved in public service. One way is to become involved in the advocacy component and join the Tell Them network in promoting access to medically accurate sex education, information about cervical cancer prevention, and services like birth control and STI testing. Talk to your friends about an issue you are passionate about. Contact your legislators and voice your support or opposition on issues.
And in the meantime, donate used clothing and books to shelters. Provide translating services to a free health clinic. Offer tutoring to children after school. Get some friends together and clean up your neighborhood.
Emanate the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King by dedicating yourself to your community in the best way you know how. Participate in direct and indirect service and advocacy to maximize the positive effects you can influence on the world around you.