Elevating the Spirit of Service in Youth

By Cina Makres | Posted on January 12, 2024

MLK Day of Service 410

Pictured: Etched into the stone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a marker of the exact spot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood to deliver his 'I Have a Dream' speech in 1963 in Washington, D.C.

Every year on the third Monday of January, our country comes together to celebrate the life and legacy of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the crusade to achieve racial equality in the United States. On this day, community members honor Dr. King by participating in a National Day of Service to continue his fight for a just and equitable world, where all people feel heard and valued. As Dr. King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” and for this reason, this day is designated as a “day on, not a day off.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service also occurs during National Mentoring Month! Although Dr. King himself was an influential mentor for many people, he also had mentors of his own who helped shape him into the inspiration he is remembered as today. As reflected through Dr. King’s legacy, when elements of mentoring and community service are intertwined, the impacts can be life-changing.

As community-based providers of health, recreation and social-emotional development services, park and recreation professionals also function as mentors and role models, creating positive change for youth daily. Youth-adult relationships, especially in recreation, are an excellent way to guide youth as they begin to discover their identity, purpose and contributions to society. When these trusting relationships provide opportunities to engage in community service, young people can be empowered to become active contributors and collaborators.

This year, we recognize the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on January 15, and we invite you to join us in strengthening communities nationwide through the integration of community service in youth mentoring programs. To guide you, we have compiled three strategies you can use to ensure youth in your programs are equipped with the skills and knowledge to actively participate in a community.

1. Host intentional youth-led activities to encourage youth voice.

Present youth with opportunities to lead that they might not get otherwise. Invite mentees to plan mentoring activities that align with their interests, culture, and goals to increase youth participation. Teaching youth to elevate their voice opens the door for more opportunities to serve as a catalyst for positive change in the future.

2. Partner with local businesses to organize volunteer events.

Hosting a community service event is a great way to expose youth to the importance of volunteerism. Consider collaborating with a volunteer-friendly organization, such as a library, shelter, food pantry, or local church to arrange mentoring events that showcase the different ways young people can give back to their communities.

3. Support youth conversation and reflection.

Provide young people with the space to reflect on an activity. Reflection is a powerful tool that can help young people grow from an experience. This strategy allows young people to evaluate what went well and what needs improvement. A young person’s willingness to engage in reflection depends largely on the quality of the mentor-mentee relationship, which is why it is important to create matches that encourage deep connections, mutual respect, and avenues for growth. A successful mentor-mentee relationship will center the mentee’s growth and development but will invite vulnerability from both participants.

On January 15, community members will spend the day honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by performing community service. For park and recreation professionals, this day also provides a unique opportunity to teach youth the importance of continuing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. every day of the year, not just on January 15!

For more resources to support mentoring in parks and recreation, visit nrpa.org/mentoring.

Cina Makres (she/her) is an NRPA program specialist of health.

Previously in our Mentoring Month Blog Series: