MLK Day of Service: The World Is Run By Those Who Show Up

Checking off item #1 of my 19 for 2019: Volunteer for MLK Day in San Leandro. It didn’t turn out exactly as expected, though I can say with confidence that I gave it due diligence, made a plan, and stuck to it.

Service has always been important to me–it shaped my education, guided my career, and eventually landed me in the Peace Corps. Despite this, it was not until after my return from the Peace Corps that I started to seriously consider MLK Day as an opportunity to serve rather than just take a paid day off.

There are about five of us here in the Bay Area who served together in the Peace Corps in the Kyrgyz Republic together, and Whitney has this way of bringing us together. Probably the first instance being an invitation to join her in the 2017 MLK Day of Service clearing trash and brush and excess vegetation from an Oakland park. My husband and I got up early and headed for Oakland along with a long list of community partners and got to work. It was a tradition I knew I wanted to continue.

In 2018, instead of accepting Whitney’s invitation to join a project in San Francisco, I wanted to stay in Oakland, and more importantly, I really wanted to plant trees. Hardly an arborist or botanist, I still have long had an affection for trees–a beautiful form of natural sculpture, the important role they play as the lungs of our environment, the value they add to most any landscape, especially urban ones, and in the context of growing political and social tension, it felt like a quiet form of resistance–bring the change you wish to see in the world. I identified a great Oakland organization dedicated precisely to this aim, Urban Releaf, and signed upfor their MLK Day of Service project planting trees at an Oakland high school.

Sadly, we didn’t get out the door that morning as soon as we could have, and the public transportation required to get there was a little more cumbersome and time-consuming than we’d planned. By the time we arrived at the project site, the existing volunteers had already gotten the job done and there wasn’t much for us to do.

We wandered the neighborhood for a while, as we like to do when we have the chance to explore a new neighborhood, and boarded a bus headed back to our neighborhood in San Leandro. I was really disappointed about the day’s events, or lack thereof, and thought a lot about what lessons might be taken away.

It occured to me that, while I really love the city of Oakland and worked there for a couple of years, it’s not where we bought our home. We love our little neighborhood in San Leandro, just a couple of miles south of the Oakland border, with lots of great littel eateries to choose from, and several great little markets within walking distance. San Leandro also faces a lot of the same challenges as Oakland or San Francisco–litter, petty vandalism and crime, panhandling and homelessness, addiction, deteriorating infrastructure, and other signs of poverty. This is where we bought our home, this is our neighborhood. Why travel an hour away when there must be opportunities to serve right where we live?

This was an early driver for my theme for 2019: Get Local, Get Personal. I was determined to find an opportunity closer to home this year. It was suprisingly difficult to identify such an opportunity. By New Year’s Day this year, I had already posted an inquiry to Next Door and on the Facebook page of the San Leandro Improvement Association with little or no response. I also inquired at the Davis St. Family Resource Center when dropping off a donation of accumulated hotel toiletries, and they had nothing planned. I set the intention of going rogue and picking up trash in my own neighborhood should I not find an organized opportunity. I did discover what appeared to be a large and organized regional park clean up scheduled for MLK Day by the East Bay Regional Park District at, appropriately enough, the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Memorial Park. Alas, due significantly to a health emergency I had, I missed the required registration deadline by mere hours and missed this opportunity.

So Iwent rogue. It wasn’t much, though it was meaningful to me. My husband and I walked the route to our favorite littel Asian market a few blocks away with a small bucket and some small trash bags, filling two of them along the way, depositing them in the trash can at the bus stop outside the market, and returning home. Just that one day, on that one small route, in our neighborhood, there was just a little less litter.

And I look forward to 18 more for 2019.

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