Giving back to pay it forward
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
Monday may be a federal holiday, but that doesn’t mean University of South Carolina students necessarily take the day off.
USC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Service initiative, run by USC's Community Service Programs in the Department of Student Life and with the assistance from the office of Equal Opportunity Programs, coordinates student volunteer opportunities throughout the Midlands each year as part of the university’s larger MLK commemoration. According to members of the event's planning committee, truly honoring the legacy of the late civil rights leader means giving back — and not taking credit, even when credit’s due.
“Many of us feel that King would be appalled that we have a day honoring him on which people take a day off from work,” said Carl Wells, assistant director of USC's Equal Opportunity Programs and chairman of the university-wide Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration Committee. “So we have a day on, rather than a day off.”
On Days of Service, students committed to serving less fortunate members of their community board buses outside the Russell House and are driven to food banks, homeless shelters, assisted living facilities and various other agencies to honor King’s legacy through hard work and personal sacrifice.
“The only way to truly honor King is to challenge yourself, develop your own mission,” said Wells. “We cannot honor him through lip service. There has to be some pounding of the pavement. We have to get out there and try to make the world better.”
As of last year, the university-sponsored program isn’t just one day of service anymore, but three — Jan. 21, 25 and 26. It also has grown from a small but ambitious event that attracted roughly 150 students when it kicked off 15 years ago to one that’s expected to attract several hundred this year. According to program coordinator Theresa Harrison, from the office of Community Service Programs, this year's volunteers will work with approximately 35 different organizations.
“That speaks volumes, it really does,” said Bobby Gist, executive assistant to the president for Equal Opportunity Programs. “When we started, I thought it would be great if we got 200 people.”
Gist has helped plan the Days of Service program since the inception and has contributed to the steady growth of the entire MLK commemoration, which now dates back 30 years. Wells traces the program’s success back to Gist’s vision.
“I think one of the best things Bobby did when he came on board was to create a campuswide planning committee,” Wells said. “So while the program is launched out of our office, there’s someone on the committee from housing, from athletics, from business and finance, from [communications] and so on—such that there was greater buy-in, there was shared responsibility.”
Ultimately, that sense of shared responsibility also speaks to the larger mission of the Days of Service program and to the philosophy that inspired it.
“Those of us who are old enough to remember Dr. King and remember the struggles of that era, we can go back and think about it and we can relate to it,” Gist said. “But how do we keep that legacy of this great American alive for the next generation? How do we keep that out there? That’s what this is all about.”
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