Every January we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life’s work marked a turning point in the fight for civil rights. Best remembered as one of the greatest orators in American history, Dr. King’s compassion for all people extended beyond the pulpit into years of active service work. This aspect of Dr. King’s legacy is what the University of Chicago Community Service Center hopes to instill in the university’s students and the Chicago community with the MLK Day of Service.
This year, UCAN, along with 13 community service-oriented organizations, partnered with the University of Chicago Community Service Center to welcome the assistance of over 200 U of C students, staff and faculty volunteers. Nine first- and second-year students volunteered with UCAN to repaint many of the rooms in UCAN’s Therapeutic Day School, UCAN Academy, to bring a more calming atmosphere to the building. Additionally, to include the students in the repainting, the stencils that were used by the volunteers were designed by the Academy students.
Julia Epplin-Zapf, a student of international studies, political science and human rights, and project leader for the UCAN group, said: “One of the reasons I love service so much is being able to make a difference. So often there are enough resources to go around, but there have to be people who will devote the time to it.”
All nine volunteers were moved by the experience, and had fun in the process. “Our students at University of Chicago can be a bit cynical about life in general,” Crystal Coats, assistant director of Student Advising and Volunteer Management, explained, “and the fact that all our students came back not only enjoying their experience at UCAN but really having something to talk about and grow from is a testament to the work UCAN is doing.”
After the day of service, participants continue to supplement their experience with a lunch with community partners, many of whom spend their lives pursuing Dr. King’s mission and are involved in making policy and running community service organizations. Coats added, “What is most important is realizing the impact your volunteerism has. To get them to think what painting the UCAN academy did for the staff and students. Engaging students in volunteerism makes them think about how to make changes in the community and engage in it in a respectful way. It’s not just about you and your interests, but about the community and what it needs to be enhanced.”
Building a community is at the heart of all service work. Compassion for all people is what continues to drive a life of service as noted in Epplin-Zapf noted of her group’s UCAN experience: “Even though the group didn’t work at UCAN or were from Chicago, we all cared about making it better because we all are part of this community.”