Living King's legacy: Turn a day off into a 'day on'

  • Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a national holiday, but one local leader reminds us, "It's not a day off, but it's a day on to do something in your community." That's reflected in a wide array of service events held today throughout the suburbs. King is pictured in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

    Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a national holiday, but one local leader reminds us, "It's not a day off, but it's a day on to do something in your community." That's reflected in a wide array of service events held today throughout the suburbs. King is pictured in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Associated Press

Updated 1/19/2015 10:57 AM

For today's youth, Martin Luther King Jr. Day ought to be more than a day off school.

It's a day to remember King's nonviolent struggle for civil rights. A recognition of his service to others. And an acknowledgment of how far society has come and how much further it needs to go when it comes to race relations, said Dianha Ortega-Ehreth, executive director of Elgin's Youth Leadership Academy.


"It's not a day off, but it's a day on to do something in your community," she said.

It's with that spirit suburban communities are coming together today for a day of service in recognition of King's legacy.


The fourth annual MLK Day of Service and Youth Leadership Conference runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at the Centre of Elgin. It includes a service fair, workshops and a keynote speaker.

"Students are going to be exhibiting their accomplishments with a service project," Ortega-Ehreth said.

More than 100 Elgin area youths will share information about their projects, and nearly 300 people are expected to attend. The goal is to encourage young people to get involved in community service projects in remembrance of King's life and accomplishments, Ortega-Ehreth said.

"The first year that we did this, one of our workshops was about civil disobedience -- the philosophy of nonviolence because that's a big part of what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for," she added. "The room was packed. Young people were just soaking it up."

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The event allows adults who work with youth an opportunity to connect and share mentoring resources. It also provides positive, constructive and educational activities to inspire, Ortega-Ehreth said.

"You can't have the tougher conversations about the things that are going on in the world, if you don't involve young people in relationships," she said. "No matter what's going on in our country or the world, it's important for us to always be in conversation with one another."

The Centre of Elgin's aquatic center, basketball courts and other activities will be available for all participants. Registration is required at For details, call (847) 214-6910.

Another key part of the day of service is a massive food drive culminating today.

Organizers said thousands of people from all walks of life, about 30 area churches and numerous businesses participate in the food drive each year.


The event, organized by the Elgin Human Relations Commission and the Dr. King Holiday Committee, aims to collect roughly 7 tons of food for Food for Greater Elgin, All People's Interfaith Food Pantry, Centro de Informacion, Community Crisis Center, Elgin Salvation Army and Westside Church of Christ. Volunteers will sort donations today at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin.

"It calls attention to one of the focuses of Dr. King's efforts, and that was service to mankind," said Joe Wars, chairman of the food drive committee.

Wars said hunger is not a black or white issue, but one that affects people across the board.

"But for the grace of God, it could be anybody," Wars said. "We still have 25 percent of the kids in this country going to bed hungry every night. It's a true, sad fact of life."

Highland Park

The city will celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with its sixth annual day of service and celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event will be held at the Recreation Center of Highland Park, 1207 Park Avenue West.

The events will relate to King's life devoted to equality, social justice, economic advancement and opportunity for all.

"This multigenerational celebration is one of the largest scale MLK Day of Service opportunities in the Chicagoland area and is shaping up to be an even bigger success than last year," event organizer Cheryl Levi said. "The day is not just about teaching our children but also about how moms, dads, aunts, uncles and even grandparents can be a part of the dream. There is something for everyone here."

Speakers include Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, whose renowned tumbling team will perform. The day will include service and learning opportunities for children and adults that benefit veterans and active duty troops, local shelters, food banks, health clinics and seniors.

Toiletries are needed to create bags for shelter residents and food donations also are sought.

United Way of Lake County volunteers have been encouraged to participate in this year's celebration co-hosted by North Shore School District 112 and the Highland Park Human Relations Commission.

For more information, call Marietta Stevens at (847) 433-2190 or email, or Levi at (847) 903-9523 or


The Itasca Community Library, 500 W. Irving Park Road, will be hosting its second annual day of service from 2 to 4 p.m. Activities include making cards for veterans, filling bags with toiletries for the homeless, decorating fabric squares for charity quilts, making fleece blankets for children, cleaning donated glasses, making dog toys for the anticruelty society, and unwrapping and sorting donated crayons that will be melted into crayons for kids with disabilities.

Youth Services Librarian Beth McCloskey said she came up with some of the project ideas from attending other days of service. Others projects will be based on what participating organizations were interested in doing.

Roughly 200 people, including children, adults and volunteers are expected to take part.

"I feel it teaches children to participate in things that help others and Martin Luther King kind of embodied selflessness and helping others," McCloskey said.

For information, call the library at (630) 773-1699.


The Vernon Area Public Library will create soft, cuddly pillows and get-well cards for children at Shriners Hospital. The event is at 11 a.m. at the library, 300 Olde Half Day Road. The program is free and open to all children in third grade and above with a caregiver. Register at or call (224) 543-1486.


Benedictine University's sixth annual day of service takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 5700 College Road. Guests can participate in a variety of service activities, including donating blood, making stuffed animals for Edward Hospital, writing letters and making valentines for veterans, making birthday bags for kids served by food pantries and creating fleece blankets. There also will be a bike drive for the homeless. Last year, more than 400 people turned out to lend a helping hand, said Joan Henehan, director of student engagement and leadership development.

"We try to think of projects that anyone can do," Henehan said. "So we want to make sure that real young kids can come and do service all the way through the elderly. We have a responsibility as being Benedictine, as being community members, to show those in need and those less fortunate that we care about them and that we can all come together as a community to honor Dr. King's memory and his dream and his legacy."

For information, call (630) 829-6000.


The Waukegan Public Library will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a community service project.

From noon to 6 p.m., community members will create get-well cards that will be distributed to pediatric patients of Vista Health System. Supplies will be provided by the library on the lower level.

The is the second year the library has partnered with Vista on the card-making project. Last year, more than 120 people participated, said Rena Morrow, the library's public relations and experiential learning manager.

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that even the smallest gesture can impact someone greatly," she said. "It only takes a few minutes out of your day to make a get-well card, but the impact on someone's life could be huge, and we are excited to partner with Vista Health System again to comfort and support children who are in the hospital."

The library also will show two films carrying messages of perseverance, community involvement, and self-confidence. At 6 p.m. Monday, the library will show "Selma, Lord, Selma," a film based on events that happened in March 1965 when two African-American girls participated in a voting rights march that turns violent. "Akeelah and the Bee" will be shown at 1 p.m. Tuesday. It tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who overcomes obstacles to participate in the National Spelling Bee. Free popcorn will be provided.

The library is located at 128 North County St., Waukegan. For more information, call (847) 623-2041 or visit


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