A Day of Service for MLK Day: An interview with Service Year Alliance’s Monique Ellington

Learn how Service Year Alliance can turn a day of service on MLK Day into a service year.

The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are celebrated today, nearly 50 years after his life cut short by an assassin’s bullet at a Memphis hotel. Americans continue to amplify his message of compassion, justice and devotion to service.

Service Year Alliance, a WorkingNation partner, is one organization that is continuing Dr. King’s legacy by turning his words and values into action. It is connecting young people to commit to a year of public service in programs like AmeriCorps or Habitat For Humanity.

Through this work, college students and Opportunity Youth build their character and skills which will benefit them in their future careers. More importantly, they participate in the rebuilding of our communities and serve those who are in need. All it takes to begin a journey with Service Year Alliance is a spark and that is what MLK Day can do.

RELATED STORY: Service Year Alliance calls on Congress to support Service Year Programs

Since 1994, the federal holiday to celebrate Dr. King has been designated as a national day of service, inspiring us to not look at it as “a day off, but a day on.” Last year, people across the nation helped feed the hungry, refurbish schools and assist job-seekers with their searches. The Corporation for National and Community Service offers resources about MLK Day where people can find volunteer opportunities and get to work today.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. Photo – Shutterstock

But to make Dr. King’s dream of a just and equitable society a reality, serving others must go beyond just one day. Service Year Alliance’s Chicago Director Monique Ellington tells WorkingNation that her organization is participating in the nationwide day of service through its advocates and service year participants.

In an interview conducted through e-mail, Ellington explains what Dr. King means to her and how his message of service connects with Service Year Alliance’s mission.

Service Year Alliance Chicago Director Monique Ellington. Photo – Provided.

WorkingNation: How is Service Year Alliance celebrating MLK Day as a day of service?

Monique Ellington: We are organizing our teams of service year advocates across the country to participate in days of service alongside service year corps members all weekend to honor Dr. King’s legacy.

Additionally, as an organization, we are challenging young people to live out the values of Martin Luther King, Jr. — values like empathy, love, courage, and service — through a service year experience. We are also highlighting inspiring service year corps members and service year alums who are living out these values in their everyday lives.

WN: How does Dr. King’s message of service resonate with you and your organization?

Dr. King’s message of service resonates because service is an opportunity to bridge gaps across societal divides, promoting equality and equity for all Americans. Service Year Alliance is committed to making a service year a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans. By doing this, our organization is committed to creating more diverse, comprehensive service year opportunities that meet the needs of all people.

We understand the magic that takes places through service. Service year opportunities empower its corps members with the opportunity to become change agents both personally and in their communities. Service year corps members are enlightened through their engagement with people of diverse backgrounds, and communities are transformed and provided with necessary supports they need to thrive. Service is open and nondiscriminatory. We believe there is room for all Americans to share their gifts, strengths, and talents through service.

When I personally think of Dr. King’s message of service, I am inspired by his desire to challenge their world to be the best version of itself. Because of Dr. King’s work, I am motivated to help change, inspire, uplift, and love those within my sphere of influence and beyond. While I have not personally completed a year of service (largely due to the fact that I was unaware of such opportunities growing up), I have been committed to serving others because it was embedded in me from my childhood.

I had excellent examples of selfless service around me. My grandmother was the local babysitter in our neighborhood. She cared for all the children in our community. My mother was a single mother. She was devoted to helping other single mothers raise their children. So service and the essence of community has been a driving force in my life. I have been committed to sharing my gifts, talents, and strengths with every person I encounter. I believe it is what I was purposed to do in this world. Imagine if we all developed a greater responsibility to those around us and focused on sharing love, we could change this world!

WN:  How can someone turn one day of volunteering on MLK Day into a service year with the help of your organization?

ME: Organizations that are planning a day of service for MLK Day can contact Service Year Alliance to learn about effective ways to grow and scale their day of service into a service year program.

Our organization has multiple resources to help organizations start service year programs. There is simply one key ingredient for a successful program: Identifying a community need that needs addressing. Service Year Alliance’s staff can assist with additional steps like developing a service model, developing a financial plan, and recruiting service year corps members.

WN: What are the lessons someone can learn by devoting their energy and time to serving their community?

ME: Individuals become empowered to be change agents in their community. Often times, there are many challenges in communities that those who live within are burdened by and do not see an opportunity to advance as individuals or as a community. Serving one’s community allows you to be a part of the solution. Most importantly, service allows one to connect to their purpose in the world.

WN: How do these lessons continue Dr. King’s legacy of social justice, equality, and economic opportunity for all?

ME: Dr. King dedicated his life to creating equality for all and promoting service for others. Service is one of the one areas where it does not matter your socioeconomic status, gender, race, nationality, or creed — everyone can be of service to others. If we all were born with the capacity to love, then we are all gifted with an ability to give something intangible and with an enormous impact on others.

Dr. King stated, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” I love this quote because it exemplifies that greatness is defined by the service we provide to others. Service allows us to take part in changing social landscapes by addressing injustices and inequality.

WN: What can people do today to start their journey into service?

ME: For those interested in service, they can start by first identifying their strengths and uncover ways to share these strengths with their community by connecting to local initiatives. If you are interested in participating in a service year, individuals can create a profile at

There they will discover a variety of opportunities nationwide where they can utilize their talents, gifts, and strengths — and get paid to gain real-world skills through a year of service.

WN: What will they take away from their service year and how can transform their communities and themselves through this real-world experience?

ME: Service years provide an excellent opportunity to strengthen skills and learn about different cultures and communities. During a year of service, service year corps members will enhance their 21st century employability skills and technical skills, as well as redefine their purpose.

WN: What is your favorite quote or lesson from Dr. King and how do you apply this to your everyday life?

ME: I have many favorite quotes from Dr. King, however, one that resonates the most with me is “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In these perilous times, when there is so much hate, dissension, and injustices, I reflect on this quote because I understand my purpose in life: I am the light. It is my responsibility professionally, socially, morally, and spiritually to let my light shine so that others do not live in darkness.

Every day, I aspire to look for opportunities whether at work or by simply walking down the street, where I can display the light that Dr. King speaks of. Everything I do is wrapped up in one principle… love! I make a conscious effort to display my light by demonstrating love through action.

How do you live out the values of Martin Luther King, Jr. — values like empathy, courage, love, and most importantly, service? A #serviceyear is an opportunity to embrace these values in your everyday life. Learn more at #MLKDay

— Service Year (@ServiceYear) January 12, 2018

******Here’s how to get involved with MLK Day.******

Find a Volunteer Opportunity: Click here to find a service project near you.

Register Your Project: Click here to recruit volunteers for your event.

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