Martin Luther King Jr waving at "I Have a Dream" speech

Make This MLK Day One of Service

On the third Monday of January, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This holiday is known as a day of service – not as a day off, but instead as a “day on.” It’s a day to volunteer and give back to our communities and the causes that matter most to us.

“The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others.” – Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, was quoted about the day saying, “The greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the holiday by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others.”

Service to others can happen in a variety of ways. You can serve others through your time – helping to pass out meals to the homeless or volunteering to tutor young kids. You can serve others through financial contributions to a local meal program or shelter or by buying food or supplies for a family in need. You can serve others by using your unique skills – helping to fix a neighbor’s fence or helping someone create a resume. Whatever you decide service means to you, make a pledge to get started this holiday and keep it up!

Tips for Serving This Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Before the holiday arrives, it’s important to think about the best ways for you to serve. Here are some things to consider ahead of time:

  • Plan ahead. Do a little digging in your own community to see what volunteer opportunities are available. If you want to spend the day feeding the homeless, then call around beforehand to see what church groups or organizations are hosting events. You could also search the internet. If you type in “MLK day of service,” several local opportunities should pop up. Explore what works best for you.
  • man and woman volunteering at food driveThink about how you’ll “serve.” If you don’t have the day off, will you donate a small amount to a local cause? Will you donate items ahead of time for a coat drive or book drive? If you do have free time, will you spend the day at a nursing home or shelter? Decide what works best for you when it comes to serving others.
  • Think about a cause that’s important to you and search for a volunteer opportunity that matches up. You can call around to local shelters, nursing homes, libraries, animal shelters and hospitals. If you have a passion for something, chances are there is a way to incorporate it into your day of service.

Suggestions for Serving  

Coretta Scott King said her husband loved to pose a “most persistent and nagging question,” which was, “What are you doing for others?” If you don’t have an idea yet for how to give back, here are some suggestions:

  • Do a winter clothing drive. Collect coats, hats, gloves, warm socks and scarves to donate to a local shelter, school or organization.
  • Buy lunch for your coworkers. Surprise the people you work with by treating them to lunch as a way to show your appreciation.
  • Think about your unique skills and use them. You could read books to kids or the elderly. You could help people write resumes or apply for jobs. You could help a neighbor in need with repairs to their house or car. You could cook a meal for a family that is going through a tough time and could use a break.
  • Reach out and express gratitude to those around you. People often get lonely during the winter months and many people suffer from the winter blues. Reach out with a phone call or a note to let others know you’re thinking about them and appreciate that they’re in your life.
  • Pay it forward. If you’re in a long line, you could let someone go in front of you. Or you could pay for the coffee or fast-food order for the car behind you. This small act of kindness will surely make someone’s day.
  • Make hygiene kits for the homeless or donate hygiene items to a local shelter. Go to the store and stock up on toothpaste and toothbrushes, hand soap or sanitizer, feminine products and more. Put them together in Ziploc bags so they can be distributed easily.
  • Work outside. Think about things your community needs. Some things you could consider are planting a tree, cleaning up a park or an alley, pulling weeds or picking up trash on a local beach or a hiking trail.
  • Volunteer at an animal shelter. Many shelters use volunteers to play with the animals, walk them, groom them and more. You can also see if they accept donations. For example, some shelters accept old blankets and linens for bedding.
  • Adopt a family in need. Find a family in your community going through a tough time and volunteer to help them out. Cook a meal, donate a gift card for groceries, help the kids with school supplies or offer to run an errand or drive the kids to school.
  • Send care packages to our Service members. Our nation’s Service members value a handwritten letter of gratitude or a care package. Search for organizations you could work with to help Service members and their families feel connected to home and appreciated for their service.
  • Search the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website or contact a VA location near you to find volunteer opportunities related to serving Veterans.
  • Donate to your local food bank to help those struggling to find enough to eat. If you don’t live near a shelter, consider creating meal bags to donate to local families in need. These bags could include all the things you’d need to cook a filling meal at home.
  • Learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and his beliefs. In addition, you could take time to learn more about the work of other important civil rights activists.


  • man web surfing on iPad MLK offers a way to search for volunteer opportunities available in your Zip code. This search is powered by VolunteerMatch and connects you to opportunities with AmeriCorps, Idealist, California Volunteers, Catholic Volunteer Network, JustServe, MENTOR, and Volunteer Match.
  • Your local VA may offer volunteer opportunities for you as a great way to get involved and give back to other Veterans.
  • American Red Cross has several volunteer opportunities available, including work in Veteran and military hospitals. Search for opportunities in your Zip code.
  • Check out the article TriWest Employees Give Back in Meaningful Ways to get inspired by people who are already using their time to serve others. Get their advice for getting started and share in their joy for helping others.
  • The American Legion is a Veteran’s organization with a motto of “Veterans Strengthening America.” Check out opportunities to volunteer with the Legion in your area.
  • connects you to volunteer opportunities managed by federal agencies such as the National Parks Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Search by location or the type of work you may be interested in.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the service of others. To honor his legacy and commemorate his life, let’s follow in his footsteps. As Coretta Scott King said, “It’s not only a day for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service.”

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