Recruit and train volunteers

Since this is a day off for many in your community and you probably need to train volunteers before they are deployed, you can take advantage of this day off to train volunteers to serve throughout the year. They will leave prepared to be effective volunteers and help you accomplish your mission.

Assist with job readiness

  • Resume writing
  • Interview skills
  • Dressing for success
  • Research training programs
  • Help individuals complete a job application or application for a training program

Provide food assistance

  • Serve meals at a homeless shelter
  • Bring meals to homebound neighbors and consider signing up to be a regular volunteer with local meal delivery services like Meals on Wheels
  • Organize a food donation drive – make sure to get a list of items local food pantries actually need and distribute that list in advance
  • Teach healthy eating on a budget

Promote health futures

Beautify the community

  • Remove graffiti from a building and paint a mural
  • Create community green spaces by planting trees, grass, and flowers
  • Reclaim a park or abandoned space for community use
  • Become a volunteer with a local, state, or national park

Prepare the community for emergency and crisis situations

Provide other community service to neighbors and families

  • Help low-income families find free tax preparation services and take advantage of the earned income tax credit
  • Shovel elderly neighbors' walkways, clear leaves or help with other yard maintenance
  • Participate in or create a neighborhood watch program
  • Install smoke detectors or distribute batteries and install new batteries for those who have detectors. (Check with your local Red Cross and/or Fire Department to understand the greatest need.)
  • Weatherize homes (Local churches may have a good idea of community members who need assistance.)


Guide to a successful project

Guide to Newsworthy Project

Relate to an issue or story that is timely and "new"

  • Example: With the economic downturn and COVID-19, many families are facing challenging times. As the MLK Day of Service happens shortly before the start of tax season (February 1- April 15), this is a great opportunity to help low-income families find free tax preparation services in their community and take advantage of the earned income tax credit. Additionally, social service organizations could be invited to make brief (virtual) presentations about services available to families in the community such as free or low-cost health screenings, food pantries, or energy assistance.

Make groundbreaking

  • Example: It is often challenging for people who are homeless or live in shelters to find employment because they lack a permanent address or phone number. One community organization provided homeless or shelter-based community members with a mailing address and a unique phone extension/voice mail box to receive messages about jobs. Volunteers can conduct outreach, register individuals for phone lines, collect clothing, or work one-on-one doing resume writing, interview skills, and dressing for success. Finding an innovative way to address a community issue will attract media and volunteers.

Affect the community's well-being

  • Example: Using the theme "40 Days of Nonviolence" – the National Association for Faith and Justice (NAFJ) and Service for Peace received a lot of media attention for helping to reduce violence in schools by getting young people to commit to 40 days of nonviolence and peace. NAFJ also worked with juvenile detention centers, where they had great results.

Make trendy, relevant, and on everyone’s mind

  • Example: There is growing interest and concern about the effects of opioid addiction on individuals, families, and communities. You could work with local pharmacies, the police, and community organizations to have a drug take back day and publicize resources available for those who seek help to combat addiction. And don’t forget about addressing community issues related to COVID-19.

Tie in with historical and current events

  • Example: Every community has its own rich history and MLK Day is a great time to showcase that history. Consider creating a timeline that documents the challenges and triumphs or heritage of groups with a long history in your community. Create a public display or traveling museum. For historical resources, check out 400 years of African American history here.

Appeal to heart and head

  • Example: An eleven-year-old boy, who was dying of leukemia, decided that he wanted to help feed homeless people. Because he unable to do so himself, his family and friends got together to make and distribute hundreds of sandwiches. Not only did the story make national news, it has sparked a movement of people, inspired by this young boy, who are now making a commitment to feed those who are homeless in their communities.

Distribute new data

  • Example: Consider partnering with the local health department and health practitioners to host a fair to address health issues that are common in your community. Educate people about the causes, treatments, and cures as well as lifestyle changes that will improve these conditions. Also provide health screenings if possible. Because of public COVID-19 health issues, these would probably have to be by appointment only.

Appeal to a mass audience

  • Example: Conduct a blood drive with a goal of getting 50% of the eligible donors in your community to give blood. If widely promoted with locations set up throughout the community, this event could engage hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands depending on the size of the community.

Bring Dr. King's legacy to life

  • Example: In Philadelphia, which hosts the largest MLK Day initiative in the nation, service teams are organized to match volunteers with new people and places, so that individuals serve with others with whom they may otherwise not interact. Working side-by-side to achieve and reflect on common goals, volunteers embrace Dr. King's teachings and make a positive impact on the community and each other.

Bring learning to the service you do

  • When you really understand why you're doing the service you've selected, your achievements have greater meaning and it becomes easier to overcome obstacles or setbacks and to recruit volunteers. The more you uncover about the challenges you're seeking to address, the more inspired you'll be to do more.
  • Whether your project is obviously educational or you're having trouble seeing the learning component in it, there's plenty to discover both about what you're doing and how it ties to what Martin Luther King, Jr. aimed for and achieved. Start by digging deeper. Why are the conditions where you'll be serving the way they are? Which decisions, policies, programs, rules, or circumstances have made them that way? Here is one example to illustrate just what you might try to figure out, based on the project you've selected:
    • You're going to create a community garden because you've noticed that where you live, an apple costs more than a double cheeseburger and soda.
    • What are the grocery options in your area? Draw them on a map and estimate how far your neighbors would need to go for produce.
    • What's fresh food availability like in other parts of town? Add large supermarkets, farmer's markets and other fresh food vendors to the map. Notice where the options to buy food are plentiful and where there are "food deserts." Is there some pattern you detect?
    • Find out how prices for produce differ from store to store and neighborhood to neighborhood. What's the difference between a head of lettuce at the corner store and the supermarket? How about at the exact same chain in different locations? Again, is there some pattern here?
  • You've decided what kind of project you're doing and made some decisions about location of service or intended recipients. While you start planning learn and help your team learn more about service and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This isn't just any random day of service; it falls deliberately on the day we honor Dr. King. His is the only day we reserve for a single individual; delve into his history, goals, and legacy to figure out why. Your local library is a great place to find biographical information as well as historical accounts of the civil rights era in which King lived. Check out biographical information available at The King Center.
  • You can also tailor your efforts to learn more about the project you are working to design. Here is an example:
    • You're putting on a fun-filled fitness day and have scouted a site and started advertising. Find out more about the benefits of specific exercises and recommendations of how often we should do each kind. What are the differences between aerobic and anaerobic activities? How do the benefits of each differ? How much should we be doing of each kind of activity?
  • On the day itself, take advantage of opportunities to learn from others and share the knowledge you've gained. Build moments of reflection into your planned activities. Share stories and words from Dr. King and about any insights you've gained so far. Ask participants questions like: "How do you feel about what you're doing? Why did you elect to participate? What problems do you hope to address with this work? Why do you think these problems exist in these forms, in this location?"
  • After the project is completed, take some time to assess and reflect on it. Think about what went well and what could be improved. Go back to your initial investigation into the local problems you elected to help tackle and ask more questions. For example:
    • If you decided to write letters to soldiers because you feel strongly about supporting our troops, what can you do to offer more aid for a longer time period? Are there local veteran and military family service organizations that accept volunteers?
  • In addition to sharing your service story with us, please add in details about what you learned before, during and since the service happened. We're listening and want to know what you did and how you feel about it. Also, continue and build on the work you've started this day!

Involve kids in service

Children’s volunteering benefits everyone! Through volunteering youth learn to:

  • respect others
  • be helpful and kind
  • understand the needs in their community
  • understand people who are different from themselves
  • develop leadership skills
  • become more patient and gain a better understanding of good citizenship

Volunteering at an early age can create positive life behaviors. Children who volunteer are three times more likely to volunteer as adults. Steady volunteering, even at a minimum of one hour a week, reduces negative behaviors. For example, youth who volunteer are 50% less like likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or engage in destructive behavior. It’s never too early to start to volunteer! Children have many opportunities to help their communities.

The projects below are all age appropriate under the supervision of an adult.

Pre-k to second grades

  • Make cards for nursing home residents. Contact a local hospital or nursing home to see if they would welcome having children make cards for residents. These cards can be holiday specific or just a lovely way to say hello and let that person know that s/he is being thought of. It is also just a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, so cards could also be held to distribute on Valentine’s Day.
  • Adopt an elderly neighbor or nursing home. They can bring cards or small treats like handmade ornaments. It would also be a treat to have the children visit and sing or do other performances for nursing home residents.
  • Have a book drive. Ask children to bring books from home that they are no longer reading or would like to give to a child in need. These books can be brought to local hospitals or shelters.
  • Color lunch bags. Bags can be used to package snacks, treats, or lunches that can be collected for needy children. Inquire at high schools, community service centers, or food banks to see if they have a program in place that would be able to benefit from the donated bags.

Third to fifth grades

  • Make fleece blankets for children in the hospital. Blankets are easy to make and involve no sewing. The blankets can be donated to a children’s wing of a hospital or a daycare center. (http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Make-a-Blanket)
  • Collect and sort school supplies to benefit a local shelter or library. Keep a box in your classroom for the designated items; then create school kits that can be donated to needy students. Get the word out to parents, faculty, administrators and the community at large about the collection.
  • Rake leaves or shovel snow for elderly or disabled neighbors. Removing leaves or snow can be done as an after-school program or weekend event. In warmer climates, students could plant flowers to beautify neighbors’ yards and the community. See if a local home store or nursery will donate the plants or seeds.
  • Create a game day at a local home for adults with disabilities. Call local group homes to see if they would appreciate a day of games and snacks for their residents. Have children bring in their favorite games to share.

Sixth to eighth grades

  • Walk or groom animals at a local shelter. Contact your local animal shelter and ask them if they have volunteer opportunities or needs. If they don’t have room for volunteers, children can collect food for the animals or raise money for the shelter based on what they shelter says are their immediate needs.
  • Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Most soup kitchens are adept at having roles for all ages of volunteers. Volunteers can be used to serve food, make placemats for the tables, and read stories to younger children. During COVID-19, options may change and shift to what you can do from home or by delivery.
  • Participate in charity walks or runs. Involve your class in participating in a previously scheduled run or walk or create an event in which the school can participate. Many activities involving walks or runs can be done virtually or with your family.
  • Create a community health fair. Help students learn more about healthy eating, exercise and other factors that contribute to good health. Have students serve as teachers and facilitators of community discussions of healthy living practices. This can be done virtually, or students could lead their families in these discussions.
  • Sponsor an art show. Have students create art projects with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings as a theme. Have a student panel to award prizes for various age groups or project types. A bake sale could also be included in this project to benefit a local charity. Close the event with students reading one of Dr. King’s speeches. These activities could be modified as virtual activities.

Additional kids in service resources

  • America's Promise - power of youth challenge.
  • Generation On - Inspires, equips, and mobilizes youth to take action that changes the world and themselves through service.
  • Youth Service America - Manages, among other programs, Global Youth Service Day and the Semester of Service.

MLK Day Grant Terms and Conditions

For questions, email MLKDay@cns.gov.