M.L.K. DAY OF SERVICE – A Philadelphia Original

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SHERIFF JEWELL WILLIAMS and Todd Bernstein, president of Global Citizen and principal coordinator of this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service events to be held on Jan. 21, discuss agenda at press conference to announce Day of Service held at Girard College. Photo by Joseph Blake

There is no doubt Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King left his mark on Philadelphia. His journeys to this city are noted and marked and his wife Coretta authorized the only Chapter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Nonviolence in Philadelphia.

It is understandable that his holiday, Jan. 21, will be centered at an institution he once criticized for its racist legacy: Girard College. He staged a rally there in 1965. It is the kickoff place for 1,500 community-service projects scheduled throughout the city for the celebration marking his birthday, now a national holiday. This year is the fourth in which Girard College has acted as host to the daylong celebration.

Philadelphians and the City administration have worked to make MLK Day truly a day of service, the kind of day envisioned by Dr. King. The Day of Service concept has taken hold around the country, due to the efforts of Philadelphian Todd Bernstein, who over the past 18 years has kept the day of service alive and growing. His efforts have made Philadelphia, the leading celebrator of this day of service.

Bernstein, the founder of Philadelphia’s service day, believes over 100,000 volunteers will respond to help in the community projects. These will cover recreational and physical-fitness events, health and wellness events, art workshops, beautification of city recreation centers, and food preparation for homeless shelters.

He founded Global Citizen to spearhead the annual event. Global Citizen is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement, community volunteering, civic responsibility, and sustained active citizenship among diverse groups, particularly young people. Global Citizen promotes democracy building, voter education and participation, locally.

“What started 18 years ago as a local project has become a growing nationwide movement of celebrating Dr. King’s legacy by uniting people of all backgrounds and ages and turning pressing community concerns into ongoing citizen action,” said Bernstein, director and founder of the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service and MLK365.

In 1994, Bernstein helped to create the King Day of Service with Pennsylvania US Sen. Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, both veterans of the civil-rights movement with Dr. King. In 1996, Bernstein started the nation’s first King Day of Service in Philadelphia.

The Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service has drawn some 785,000 volunteers over 17 years. Each year, it has been the largest King Day event in the nation. This past January, more than 85,000 people, including VP Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, volunteered in some 1,300 projects.

What started in Philadelphia has become a national movement, with projects taking root in hundreds of cities, large and small, across the nation.

Bernstein also founded MLK365, which transforms the King Day of Service into a year-round civic engagement initiative. This program promotes and supports sustainable civic engagement by providing ongoing volunteer opportunities, educational programs, and community partnerships across the Greater Philadelphia region.

Bernstein was named by President Barack Obama as a “Champion of Change” and honored at the White House on January 12, 2012. In 1999, the Points of Light Foundation honored the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service as a national Point of Light.

In 1997, Bernstein served as national planner for the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. The five-day summit brought together America’s living presidents and community leaders to address civic engagement and opportunities for America’s at-risk young citizens. The event led to the creation of America’s Promise: the Alliance for Youth.

Three years later, in 2000, Bernstein served as director of the National Shadow Convention (a bipartisan event held concurrently with the Republican and Democratic national conventions). He went on to serve as director of the King Day of Service National Expansion Initiative from 2006–2008.

In 2009, Bernstein was awarded the Jewish Social Policy Action Network Social Justice Award and the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice Legacy Award. The Philadelphia Inquirer has also honored Bernstein with its Citizen Hero Award.

Bernstein holds a BA in politics and American history from Ithaca College, and also studied for an MGA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Center of Government.

Last January’s Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service was once again the largest King Day event in the nation, with 100,000 volunteers participating. Organizations were invited to host service projects on Jan.21. Examples of projects being planned include starting a mentoring program, renovating and weatherizing houses, organizing after school programs, beautifying schools and recreation centers, creating safe corridors programs, participating in anti-violence initiatives, preparing and distributing food at homeless shelters, delivering meals to homebound seniors, reading with children about Dr. King, organizing health fairs and legal clinics and performing plays about Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

All organizations already planning to participate should contact the King Day of Service headquarters to register their project at www.mlkdayofservice.org. Registered participants will receive a King Day of Service T-shirt. Following each project, discussion and reflection will take place focusing on the legacy of Dr. King and the importance of service.

Any individual, family, and group interested in volunteering or hosting a Jan. 21 King Day of Service project should call (215) 851-1811 or register online at www.mlkdayofservice.org.

Different groups will be distributing computers and programming to those without. The Philadelphia Housing Authority is one of those. It is giving free netbook computers and programming to some of its residents. This is in conjunction with the City and others aiming to provide internet access and training to city residents.

In a new partnership with the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, King Day of Service volunteers are invited to end their day on Jan. 21 with a free celebration at the Arden Theater.

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