Following in Dr. King’s Footsteps

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” 

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
      While an extra Monday off work or school may feel like a chance to relax and veg out, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was actually put in place for you to follow his example—making it a day “on,” not a day off.

     January 20 marks the 25th national MLK Day of Service. Since 1994, when the King Holiday and Service Act was signed into law, volunteer centers across the country have been encouraging involvement—and so do local mental health experts.

     “Helping others has the potential to be of enormous benefit for our mental health,” says Dr. Jana L. Raup, Chief Behavioral Officer at Bay Community Health in West River. “Even when we begin volunteering reluctantly, once we focus on giving or doing for others, our own worries, depression and anxiety begin to fade to the background.”

      If that convinces you to volunteer this MLK Day, you may wonder where, and how, to help.

      Locally, there are two epicenters of volunteer resources. The Sarbanes Center for Public and Community Service at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold connects volunteers with opportunities in Anne Arundel County. Volunteer Southern Maryland is a program of the Nonprofit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland. 

      “Volunteer opportunities in Anne Arundel County range from food drives and sorting pantry items to delivering food and toiletries to the homeless, transporting products between organizations, mentoring students, teaching yoga, facilitating groups and even crafting blankets and clothing for children,” says Tresa Ballard, program coordinator for service learning at the Sarbanes Center for Public and Community Service. “There are opportunities for individuals, families, groups and clubs–and, service opportunities that can be done from home.”

      The centers act as databases for organizations that need help and the volunteers who want to serve.

       At Volunteer Southern Maryland, 33 active opportunities are listed this week. 

      “That number changes as nonprofits go online and list their volunteer needs,” says Cara Fogarty, coordinator at the Nonprofit Institute.

       Even small actions can create a domino effect. 

      “I recommend volunteerism to others because I believe no one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” says Carl Snowden, former Annapolis city alderman and chairman of the board of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Committee of Maryland. 

       Snowden points to the visible accomplishments of the volunteer efforts he helped lead. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, the Coretta Scott King Memorial Garden in Edgewater and the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Memorial located in Annapolis were all built by volunteers.

      “Volunteering makes us a part of something bigger than ourselves; it encourages social interaction even if only with one other person,” says Raup. 

        “As we give and do with and for others, we experience a sense of well-being that gives us a better feeling about ourselves and gives us a purpose, perhaps even a passion for living. By changing our focus from our own problems to helping someone else, we see a decrease in stress, depression, and anxiety and an increase in positive social interactions, self confidence and  overall life satisfaction.” 

       The recipient of your gifts need not be human, either.

       Robin Cohen of Annapolis gives her time to Lab Rescue of the LRCP, a rescue dedicated to finding homes for Labrador retrievers in need. 

       “I love knowing that I’m out at these events helping wonderful dogs find forever homes,” Cohen says. “Plus, I get to love on them when they show up for adoption events.”

      And if you still need another reason to volunteer, consider that as we begin a new decade, helping others may help you change direction in your own life. 

      “Volunteering can open doors that enhance our own lives; perhaps recognition of skills that we did not know we had, new contacts to lead in different directions, a renewed passion for living —all of which can only enhance our mental health,” Raup says.

Sarbanes Center: 410-777-2053; 

Volunteer Southern Maryland: 301-934-7544;