Martin Luther King Jr. Day is known as a “day of service,” an opportunity to celebrate the holiday by volunteering in your community. This year, the Washington Post decided to commemorate the holiday with a special section on what volunteers do.
What I thought was interesting about this section was the sorts of activities volunteers perform. The Post profiled numerous people who are doing interesting and useful things that only volunteers can do. Here are some of the volunteers the Post wrote about.
Retired psychologist Craig Provost spends every Sunday at the Intermountain Medical Center in Provo, Utah holding premature babies. As an official “baby cuddler,” Provost holds infants for a long time. Research shows that newborn babies grow stronger if they get a lot of touching in their first weeks.
“I’ll often just pray for them to grow up with good health and be kind, loving, and wise people,” Provost says. “Sometimes, they’ll have a little hand sticking out and I’ll put my finger out so they can hold on.”
Provost also comforts the dying in the medical center’s hospice. “Nobody should have to die alone,” he says. “I’ve been there when some of them have died—it’s very emotional for me. Sometimes just being there for someone is the greatest gift you can give.”
Peter Steckelman also volunteers at a hospital, the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. In 2006, Steckelman survived lymphoma through a “harsh treatment regimen” that included chemotherapy and radiation. He decided to help children who were fighting cancer, and for 10 years has spent his Sundays spending time with kids. He would “engage with them—playing, watching TV or a movie, doing crafts, coloring, whatever the kid wants to do.”
“For those four hours, it’s all about the kids,” Steckelman says. “I can take away my executive hat. I can take away my accountability hat and be of service to someone else. That’s very satisfying.”
David Plazas, an editor for the Nashville Tennesseean, comes into the office a little late every Wednesday morning after reading to kindergarteners at the inner city Buena Vista Elementary School. He decided to volunteer in the school after a series in his newspaper reported that only 30 percent of Nashville third graders were reading at grade level. Plazas asks the kindergarteners what he wants to read and then they spend some time reading and coloring together.
“You feel good, you feel energized,” Plazas says. “I leave with a big smile on my face and I feel that I can start the day in a way that’s really focused.”
When Gabi Bello was a high school student in Chicago, she spent weekends giving the homeless food and clothes. Once she came to Washington to study at George Washington University, she decided to enlist with engageDC, a university-supported organization that places students with nonprofits. Bello decided to spend 15 hours a week at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit that helps the homeless. She holds art classes, hands out clothes, prepares meals, and greets homeless people.
“If I’m having a bad day, my mood immediately changes when I show up to volunteer,” she says. “I have a roof over my head and clothes on my back, and for many people, those are luxuries. People who are homeless are often ostracized, but they’re simply people with dreams like you and me.”
What do these stories show? These are people who aren’t sitting in phone banks or engaging in political protests. Their volunteer work consists of the small but necessary things that make life better and strengthen civil society.
Every city has hospitals with severely ill patients, schools with kids who are struggling, and poor people who could use a hand up or maybe just a hug. So there are plenty of useful things for volunteers to do—and they could use your help.