Michaela Wells

Michaela Wells, graduate assistant for assessment and service in the Office of Student Involvement, organized this year’s virtual MLK Day of Service. Volunteers gave their time to Junior Achievement, STL Arc, Tenth Life Cat Rescue and Great Circle St. Louis. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Planning for this year’s MLK Day of Service started with a brainstorm like no other.

Michaela Wells, graduate assistant for assessment and service in the Office of Student Involvement at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, had to begin by thinking about how students could help from the safety of their own homes. She did a survey of past service participants and talked with Director of the Director of Community Engagement and Outreach Patricia Zahn and Senior Director for Student Affairs Jessica Long-Pease.

Then Wells ran with it.

“We reached out to the organizations we’ve worked with in the past,” she said. “I sent personalized emails to sites that we’ve done MLK Day at in the past three years, and I asked them, like, ‘Hey, I know times are tough. We’re still trying to do some service for the community and figuring out what that looks like. Do you guys have any ideas of what our volunteers could do from the safety of their homes to help you out?’”

From her efforts, Wells pulled together four volunteer opportunities for students: creating educational videos for Junior Achievement, greeting cards for clients at STL Arc, upcycled Cat Toys for Tenth Life Cat Rescue and kits for children at Great Circle. The four opportunities had 90 volunteer spots, which students, faculty, staff and community members filled to full capacity and will be working on today through Feb. 5.

Though the event looks very different than past MLK Days of Service, the intention behind it stayed the same.

“The slogan of MLK Day is ‘a day on, not a day off,’” Wells said. “It is a good way to encourage people in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to go out and help their communities.”

Part of a national initiative, UMSL’s event is in its 13th year. The idea behind the day is for volunteers to see firsthand how even small efforts can make huge impacts on their communities. Past events have included in-person volunteering efforts that range from painting, landscaping, remodeling houses for low-income families, tutoring and more.

Jennifer Grinder, who is working toward a BS/MS in UMSL’s Biochemistry and Biotechnology Program and is leadership programs manager in OSI, found meaning in participating this year especially.

“This is my third year volunteering for UMSL’s MLK Day of Service, and I am so pleased to participate in an expanded virtual outreach as a creative way to serve our community in the pandemic,” she said. “The legacy of Dr. King looms large this year, especially as our brothers and sisters marched all over the globe to declare that Black Lives Matter. 2020 was traumatic for our country in many ways, and MLK Day of Service is a chance to reflect on how we can build strong relationships when we come together and lift each other up; it’s a great way to start off a year and a new semester at UMSL.”

For staff member Jacque Flanagan, who is media and communications coordinator in the Office of Admissions, MLK Day has meant getting together with family and discussing the history of civil rights and her family.

Though this is her first year volunteering with UMSL, she notes service has played a critical role in her life.

“Even though I come from humble beginnings, it was always instilled in me that it is important for everyone to serve,” Flanagan said. “I was taught it gives us the opportunity to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective. Understanding that everyone’s role is important opens your eyes up to the bigger picture.

“No matter what I was doing, it showed me that everyone has a place to contribute in their community and can make an impact. I think service is one of many ways we can connect to each other, especially during times of such division – it’s important we still work to foster community and create a sense of belonging.”

Though Wells believes in the importance of volunteering for MLK Day, she was also quick to acknowledge that during this unprecedented year, it might not be right for everyone.

“We’re thankful that even in these hard times, people are willing to go out and serve their community,” she said. “People are feeling that call to help. But I also think on the flip side of that, people are feeling worn out and tired. Because even if you’re not doing much, life is different, and that change can be stressful to people. If you need a day off, don’t feel pressured to go out and do anything. We’ll see your projects back by Feb. 5, whenever you get it done.”

Wells, who is working toward a master’s in higher education and holds a BS in social work, is in the process of organizing service initiatives for the spring semester. She sees an upside to the virtual volunteering that’s necessitated by the ongoing pandemic.

“Now that the Office of Student Involvement has gotten used to doing virtual events, this is our redemption semester to bring things back and come back better than ever,” Wells said. “We’re hoping that we can involve even a bigger number of students than we have in the past, just because it is more accessible. This opportunity to be in a virtual space has broadened our audience and broadened our abilities.”

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