8:20 a.m. PST January 19, 2016
On the third Monday of January every year, Americans observe a day of remembrance for Martin Luther King Jr., the minister, activist, leader and humanitarian known for his work in the civil rights movement.
In one of the sermons compiled for his 1963 book, “Strength to Love,” King says: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
On Monday, local community members gathered to celebrate the life of the leader and to answer that question through service.
Helping tend a garden
About 70 volunteers from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation gathered at 15 service-project sites throughout the day for the foundation’s MLK Day of Service.
At Washington Elementary School, about 15 volunteers started the day killing weeds at the school’s garden and laying down new mulch. The garden provides hands-on learning for science and nutrition classes.
Kat Barton, a Food Core service member for the foundation, helps maintain the garden throughout the year.
“The volunteers are the reason the garden is able to exist and be here for the kids,” she said.
Barton said MLK Day is a good opportunity to bring the community together and “honor the progress we’ve made as a society.”
Pablo Brito, 23, was one of those volunteering in the garden.
An intern at a local nonprofit, Brito has participated in some kind of service project in Salem on MLK Day for the past three years.
Brito said he watches MLK’s speeches on the days leading up to the holiday, and on the day itself, to reflect. He said he knows there is still work to be done.
“I know there are certain people in the community who aren’t being served, or who are underrepresented,” he said. “I feel a need to help in any capacity I can, whether that’s a day of volunteering or life-long service.”
Helping people to see
This year marked the 12th Annual Kaiser Permanente MLK Days of Service, in which an estimated 800 employees and community members donate their time at more than 35 service projects across the state.
New this year was the free eye care, offered to patients of Salem Free Clinics, at Kaiser Permanente’s North Lancaster medical office.
John McConville, executive director of Salem Free Clinics, said many of the clinics’ patients need more than glasses. For example, a number of patients have diabetes and are in great need of retinal examinations.
Some patients had not had their eyes checked or gotten new glasses in decades.
When Kaiser offered to fund the services for the holiday, McConville said he jumped at the chance.
“This would be exactly the kind of thing (King) would be proud of — giving back to those in need in the community,” he said.
The Visions Essential office was able to schedule 27 patients for the day, with four doctors working.
McConville said that, with 5,500 patients a year at the free clinic, it wasn’t difficult to fill the appointments. They searched for those most in need, particularly those with diabetes or who haven’t had an eye exam in a very long time.
Charles McNeil, 54, said he had never had an eye exam, to the best of his memory.
He said his eyes have been so foggy and blurry lately, he is having a hard time seeing at all.
“It’s scary,” he said. “I’m blessed just being here.”
Others were in similar situations, such as Carson Sonis, a 52-year-old Pacific Islander who hadn’t had his eyes checked since 2010, when he was in Guam, or Adisa Ezekias, a 70-year-old woman with diabetes.
Amber Carlson, an optometrist with Kaiser, said staff would be offering full health assessments, even though the day’s patients are not insured. Additionally, she said, if any continued treatment is needed, that will be taken care of as well.
“For a lot of these folks, this may be their only opportunity for care,” Carlson said.
She added that one patient started crying during an earlier appointment.
“It made it all worthwhile,” she said.
Helping those experiencing homelessness
The Union Gospel Mission men’s mission in downtown Salem has 200 beds. But during the winter months, upwards of 300 men seek shelter each night.
On Monday, more than 300 students and staff from Corban University in Salem volunteered throughout the city at 17 or 18 sites — nine of whom went to the men’s mission downtown to help with some of the behind-the-scenes work.
They were volunteering as part of the university’s MLK Jr. Serve Day, an annual day of service the school has in place of classes.
“It’s amazing,” said Jenny Dunham, volunteer administrator for the mission. “We can’t do what we need to do without volunteers.”
Corban volunteers started by sweeping and cleaning around the outside of the downtown building. Afterward, they helped by making Valentine’s Day decorations for the Union Gospel Mission sites throughout the area.
Dunham said the decorations will bring cheer to the clients when they are put up.
The students said it was important they were out volunteering in the community, rather than taking the day off.
“If there is something that needs to be done, being tired isn’t enough of a reason not to do it,” said David Giglio, a 20-year-old Corban student. “Serving is more important. It’s what (King) would have done.”
Other students, such as Nathan Smith, 20, Rebecca Weed, 19, and Bradley Trull, 20, agreed.
“As a Christian, I am living out my faith by helping the poor and the fatherless,” Trull said. “But it is also the reason we have today off, to go serve.”