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A student uses a mattock to loosen soil at Odd Fellows Cemetery, one of Knoxville's first dedicated African American burial grounds. Volunteers helped to level an accessible pathway.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often considered a special holiday. Instead of a day off, communities across the country treat it as a day to gather for celebrations and acts of service to honor the legacy of a historic civil rights activist who dedicated his life to equality and racial justice. This year the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, celebrated for two weeks, commemorating the holiday through MLK Jr. Days of Service.

The Jones Center for Leadership and Service typically hosts an annual MLK Jr. Day of Service each January, but given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, service opportunities were spread out from January 29 through February 5. Students, faculty, and staff signed up in small groups for morning and afternoon volunteer sessions with community partners across the greater Knoxville area, including the following agencies:

• Epilepsy Foundation of East Tennessee
• Goodwill Industries-Knoxville Inc.
• InterFaith Health Clinic
• Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful
• Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
• Knoxville Re-Animation Coalition
• Ladies of Charity
• Raising a Voice
• Remote Area Medical
• UT Office of Sustainability

More than 430 participants signed up to serve in small groups over the course of the two weeks during 55 different session options. Many of the service sites were outdoors. Undeterred by the cold weather, eager volunteers tackled projects including cleaning litter from riverbanks, leveling an accessible pathway through Odd Fellows Cemetery, and sorting donations at Ladies of Charity.

Students riding on a boat on the river.
Volunteers travel on a boat cleaning up the Tennessee River.

Sydni Lollar, a junior from Greeneville, Tennessee, studying biomedical engineering, led a group of participants serving with Remote Area Medical. The group handled multiple tasks like making phone calls to local churches, sorting denture supplies, and creating flyers to help RAM prepare for an upcoming event in Knoxville where attendees will receive health, vision, and dental care at no cost.

“By spanning what we used to do in one day across a few weeks, we were able to have more participants do more impactful service,” Lollar said. “Working in small groups also meant we were able to better connect with these community partners and capitalize on a more personal service experience.”

Making connections through service is something that both helps the community and provides a sense of normalcy to a difficult year. Graduate teaching assistant Aubrey Lewis, from Memphis, noted that participants in her service group had nothing but positive attitudes and were excited to help out and be a part of something that felt normal again. Being able to gather safely and provide assistance in such a direct way gave the UT community a unique opportunity to practice one of the foundational tenets of being a Tennessee Volunteer—serving others.

Students volunteering at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens during the MLK Jr. Days of Service pull weeds from a garden bed.
Students volunteering at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens during the MLK Jr. Days of Service pull weeds from a garden bed.

Kasey Washington, a sophomore from Memphis studying finance, led a group at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens helping weed and replant rented garden plots and assisting with creating a pathway through the garden.

“Many of the sites we visited over the two weeks thrive off volunteer help. Because of the pandemic, their usual number of volunteers may not have been as consistent this year,” Washington said. “That made the work we were doing that much more meaningful. Getting out into the community and seeing the genuine happiness the community partners had to have some extra help reinstalled the reason for the holiday: to volunteer to improve our community.”

The Jones Center also engaged students virtually through social media over the two-week period. On Instagram, the center made multiple posts encouraging participants to reflect on MLK’s legacy and why they were serving. Students were able to screenshot a graphic, tag their friends, and share their own perspectives while raising awareness during the holiday.

Moving forward into the year, the Jones Center hopes students, faculty, and staff will continue to reflect intentionally on how they can serve the Knoxville community.

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CONTACT

Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, msteph44@utk.edu)