AU launches virtual 2021 Martin Luther King Day of Service Challenge

Program leader and volunteer with the Center for Community Engagement and Service discuss MLK’s legacy, importance of giving back

AU launches virtual 2021 Martin Luther King Day of Service Challenge
"MLK Memorial 5119" by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Update: This article has been updated since it was first published with comments from Nisaa Chaudhry, a student who volunteers with Crisis Text Line.

American University’s Center for Community Engagement and Service launched a virtual two-week long Martin Luther King Day of Service Challenge for AU students to engage in social issues within their communities. 

Program coordinator Feruz Kidane said it’s important to commemorate civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, even as the pandemic prevents many from serving in person.

“I think his vision was for community building through our personal and individual involvement in our community,” she said. “So I think us going out doing works of service and volunteering on MLK Day is really honoring that vision, and kind of repurposing the idea of making change and what that means and how that starts.” 

This year marks the first time virtual options will be part of the MLK Day of Service, as AU has strict coronavirus regulations against doing or even encouraging in-person service, according to Kidane.

“We’ll still be obviously supporting folks who do choose to do that type of service, but we aren't promoting anything like that,” Kidane said. “As of right now, we’re doing a virtual, two-week campaign where we rally together the campus — students, staff — to get into the community virtually, do service and highlight that by taking pictures and posting it online.” 

According to Kidane, students are signed up to volunteer across the United States, including the DMV area, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut. As of Friday, 26 students and alumni are registered to participate in the challenge. The office sent registrants T-shirts for students to represent AU while volunteering, and is encouraging them to use the hashtag #AUMLK on social media. A few folks have already done their service and have sent photos, Kidane said. 

Kidane said that for a few days, beginning on the MLK Day of Service, a select number of members of the CCES office, students and alumni will set up boxes for food distribution with Thrive DC, an organization focused on ending and preventing homelessness in D.C. If students are interested in getting involved with this particular project, she said they can contact her or Marcy Campos, who directs the program, by email. 

College of Arts and Sciences junior Nisaa Chaudhry is one volunteer who has worked with Crisis Text Line as an independent counselor since June 2020. She was originally going to volunteer at a hospital when COVID-19 hit, and began working with Crisis Text Line over quarantine. As a counselor, she offers intensive mental health intervention to people who text in. 

“I’ve been trained to have a good way to bring the texters from a super intense, like, hot moment to a cool calm,” she said. “I guide them to create a plan to stay safe and healthy. These topics that can come up in the texts — suicide, self-harm, sexual and physical abuse — [are] different every time.”

She said she has volunteered with the CCES office since her freshman year and found out about the challenge through the center’s emails. On MLK Day of Service, Chaudhry spent four hours on the Crisis Text Line platform.

Some other volunteer plans include helping out at food banks, sending care packages, working with individuals with disabilities, assisting at care facilities, cleaning up their communities and donating to organizations. For students who will volunteer entirely virtually, some plan to work at call centers and virtually tutor. The CCES office has provided a list of possible volunteer options, which students can view through their AU accounts.

Chaudhry said that with all of her classes being online, it has been hard to find a complete day off to volunteer. 

“I’d kind of spread it out whenever I have a free two-hour chunk, whenever I can,” she said. Especially with everything online, you get a lot of Zoom fatigue and you get tired being in front of a screen.” 

According to Kidane, the office has experienced challenges with finding volunteers while AU is operating virtually. The office worked with the director of Multicultural and Affinity Engagement for the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the AU NAACP chapter in its outreach.

“I think it’s really hard for folks to kind of commit to doing anything or more, I guess, virtual activity,” she said. “So it’s definitely a challenge. But thankfully, there’s still been a great outpouring of folks who are still willing and excited about this kind of work.”

Chaudhry said that she would have still eventually found out about Crisis Text Line due to her interests and coursework in mental health and stress management, but she wouldn’t have found out about it as soon as she did during the pandemic. 

“I’d definitely continue through it when I'm in med school,” she said. “You never lose by giving, that’s how I see it. Even though we’re all online, we can still do things. Being cooped in a house, it can be so depressing and lonely, but this will make you feel like you’re actually doing something productive and you can feel good, too.” 

Kidane said that as COVID-19 restrictions change, the office would like to have more events that place students in the community again toward the end of the spring semester. 

“We’re kind of reenvisioning how that looks considering everything’s virtual and more of a remote experience, but still definitely making an impact and getting involved,” she said.

Members of the AU community can still sign up to participate in the challenge here and can register any time until the challenge ends on Jan. 30, even while it is ongoing. 

“The way I see MLK Day is: It’s a day off but also, it’s a day on,” Chaudhry said. “Do something with your day instead of sitting around doing nothing.” 

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