The national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a day off to some. For others, such as Beth Steiner, it’s an opportunity to teach her child about King’s legacy and work, which she says remains unfinished.
Steiner has taught her 8-year-old son about King and how he “fought to make things equal and equitable for people of color.” She also taught him “things are still not equal and equitable for people of color in the country. We teach him about racism and about privilege and power.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Steiner says her son “knows we come together in the Jewish community to do a mitzvah, to serve others in the name of Dr. King.”
That day of service is Jewish Volunteer Connection’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, held at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC Monday.
With a variety of projects to take part in, participants could decorate and fill blessing bags for a homeless shelter, decorate cookies for a food kitchen, make hand warmers for Meals on Wheels or write birthday cards for nursing home residents.
But the focus, Steiner says, was on service-learning rather than on the crafts themselves.
“We have a service-learning component woven in to all the projects,” Steiner, who is on the service day’s volunteer committee, said. Veterans nonprofit The Baltimore Station gave a presentation to middle schoolers and high schoolers about homelessness and veterans. “So it’s age- appropriate service-learning while weaving in the values of the Jewish community and also the values of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Steiner said.
“With the elementary- school children we’re reading a book called ‘The Fair Housing Five,’ where they talk about discrimination in housing practices,” she added.
Deborah Sharp, who attended the event as part of the Interfaith Coalition of Baltimore County, read the book to the kids. “This is a great book for the elementary-age children,” Sharp said. Its message is “no matter your race or disability, you have a right to have fair housing.”
Sharp says this event was particularly important to the coalition because it honored King’s legacy of service.
“Dr. King was a man who felt that everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” she said. “And if we have a heart full of love and compassion for one another, and if we serve one another in love, we can all be in a greater place.”
More than 200 people signed up for the service day held by JVC, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
Zach Shankman and his 8-year-old twins, Joseph and Hadley, were walk-in attendees.
“One of my colleagues is very involved in JVC and mentioned that there were a number of programs here today,” said Shankman. “I thought this would be a good time to come with the kids and show them what service is about.”
Shankman grew up in Chicago and attended an elementary school named after King. He wanted his kids to know about the civil rights leader. “We were talking about it in the car on the way over here,” Shankman said, “about what his vision was and why it’s important to serve.”
Shankman’s son Joseph wrote on one of the eight posters hanging in the JCC’s auditorium. The posters asked questions such as “what is your favorite thing about Baltimore?” and “what do you wish for in the future?” Joseph answered the latter, saying he wants “everyone to have enough food. And flying cars.”
Alexis Poindexter, an 18-year-old senior at the Institute of Notre Dame, came to the event as part of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program. She attended The Baltimore Station’s service-learning.
“We’re an African American group that wants to create bonds and a close relationship with the Jewish community,” said Poindexter, who will attend Williams College in the fall. “We went on a trip to Israel and we have programs that center around issues that are affecting the African American and Jewish communities.”
She said the presenters from The Baltimore Station asked the teens how their interests and passions can affect social justice in their communities. Poindexter says the teens suggested using social media and going to protests.
Eight-year-old Elia Gregg kneeled on the wooden floor of the crowded, echoing gymnasium, completely absorbed in printing the message “have a wonderful day” on a blessing bag. Her mother, Bethany Gregg, sat cross-legged, watching as Elia and her other daughter, Ariana, 9, brightened their plain canvas bags with markers.
Bethany said making the blessing bags for people experiencing homelessness was especially poignant on a day with subzero temperatures.
“It’s hard to walk from your car to a building, much less be outside all day or all night,” she said.
Gregg homeschools the girls and says they enjoy doing service projects.
“Today, it seemed important in terms of remembering Martin Luther King and remembering his legacy and moving that message forward,” she said. “It feels especially important now with all the things happening politically and with racial relations and everything.”
Erica Rimlinger is a Towson-based freelance writer.