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Students serving at Ijams Nature Center as part of the MLK Days of Service.

In 2021, the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service reimagined what in-person volunteering could be in the middle of a global pandemic. The creative result started a new tradition at UT, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with an extended two-week service experience that engaged the entire campus community.

This year, the annual MLK Jr. Days of Service ran from January 31 through February 11. More than 550 students, faculty, and staff signed up to create more than 75 small groups that volunteered in the greater Knoxville area over the two-week period.

“Great cities, great campuses, and great areas thrive because there are great people working to help make sure that the community is supported,” said Laura Ketola, assistant director of the Jones Center. “MLK Days of Service are just one example of how UT is encouraging that involvement and outreach from the campus community. We’re the Volunteers. It’s what we’re called to do here.”

Historically the event has been held in one day, but given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, service opportunities were spread out to better serve students and the community. Volunteers set out to 20 different service sites, including the following agencies:

  • Children’s Center of Knoxville
  • Goodwill Industries
  • Hope Central
  • Ijams Nature Center
  • Keep Blount Beautiful
  • Keep Knoxville Beautiful
  • Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful
  • Knox Education Foundation
  • Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum
  • Knoxville re-Animation Coalition
  • Ladies of Charity
  • Morning Pointe Powell
  • Remote Area Medical
  • SEEED Knox
  • Seymour Volunteer Fire Department
  • Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding
  • SOS Beagles of Tennessee
  • TRV Stewardship Council Inc.
  • Zoo Knoxville

Volunteers tackled an array of projects including sorting donations, tutoring children, cleaning river shorelines, and organizing storage spaces with various partners.

Channing Mercer, a senior from Nashville majoring in political science, served with multiple different partners including Keep Knoxville Beautiful, pulling weeds and invasive species so that the organization could make a plant sanctuary. Mercer’s favorite part of the experience was hearing the history of how different organizations started in Knoxville.

“It is always interesting to me to learn about these organizations’ goals and how they have influenced the community,” she said. “I also enjoy meeting new students on campus. Service introduces me to people I would never have met otherwise.”

Morning and afternoon sessions were available, and each small group was accompanied by a Jones Center ambassador who helped participants understand the greater impact of the work accomplished. Truly honoring King’s legacy takes intentionality and more than just committing to a one-off community service event. That’s an element of the MLK holiday that the Jones Center staff understands well, as they made a point of engaging participants with meaningful reflection as part of the experience.

For other service opportunities throughout the spring, visit the Sign Up to Serve Calendar on the Jones Center for Leadership and Service website.


Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993,