Obama, Invoking King, Makes Call For Service

In 1994, Congress expanded the mission of the holiday devoted to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It now includes a national day of service. And this year, encouraged by President-elect Obama, more volunteers are emerging.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

If he had lived, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have marked his 80th birthday last week. He's remembered for his pursuit of civil rights, of course, and for motivating people to serve a cause.

(Soundbite of 1968 sermon)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Activist, Minister): If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.

INSKEEP: Martin Luther King delivered that sermon in 1968, shortly before his assassination. His birthday became a national holiday in the 1980s and in 1994, Congress expanded its mission to include a national day of service. People were urged to get involved in their communities. And this year, more volunteers are stepping forward to take up that challenge. Here's NPR's Kathy Lohr.

KATHY LOHR: President-elect Barack Obama is calling for a new spirit of service in America. Last year, half a million people participated in King Day volunteer events. More than double that number is expected to help out his year at thousands of service projects, including one at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Atlanta. The group provides temporary housing, clothing and food to the needy.

Mr. WILLIAM HAYGOOD(ph)( Volunteer, Society of St. Vincent de Paul): Basically, this would be one of the bins of food that come in as a donation.

LOHR: William Haygood has been a volunteer for the group since he was laid off from his own job as a machinist a few months ago. He sorts and unpacks various canned goods and bags of potato chips so the items are ready to be placed on the food pantry shelves.

Mr. HAYGOOD: It's been beautiful working here. I've seen a lot of people come in and actually be able to get help.

LOHR: That includes himself. Haygood is still looking for full-time work, but says volunteering is his way of giving back to St. Vincent de Paul, which serves 55 counties in Georgia, including Atlanta. Piles and piles of clothing and household items are received at the warehouse here, and eventually go out to nine thrift stores. Because of the harsh economy, the group has seen a huge increase in people seeking assistance, including those who are homeless and others who've never needed help before. Sharon Maddox(ph) is manager of the Family Support Center.

Ms. SHARON MADDOX (Manager, Family Support Center, Society of St. Vincent de Paul): No question about it. People who were in the car industry, people in offices that work for governments, you know, all these folks are cutting back, and we see a lot of them coming to us for assistance for the first time.

LOHR: Maddox says the two things that the group needs most: food and more volunteers. This is the first time St. Vincent de Paul is participating in the King Day of Service. The group asked for about two dozen volunteers to help organize its food warehouse, and Maddox says almost twice as many signed up to help.

Ms. MADDOX: The thing about Martin Luther King is that he did say that everyone can serve. No matter what your educational background is, no matter what your financial background is, everyone can serve. And I hope that they will.

(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. KING: I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say...

LOHR: The holiday honors King's life, his teachings and his service. Organizers hope volunteers will make a commitment not just for a single day, but throughout the year. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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