Volunteering for the King

By Anna Landsverk

landsveran@mnstate.edu

Armed with decorative tinsel hearts and cake mixes, MSUM students committed their time and abilities to helping others for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On Jan. 17, the student and staff volunteers met at the Emergency Food Pantry in Fargo to give back to the  community.

The event is an annual collaboration between the Black Student Union (BSU) and the office of diversity and inclusion. Students and staff give back at a program of BSU’s choice in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., who personified helping others in extraordinary ways.

Senior Lexi Byler, the president of the BSU, shared her thoughts on the benefits of the service project. She has participated in the BSU service projects for the last several years.

“Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. is known for his service and the pride he took in giving back to his community, and even making communities other than his own better,” Byler said. “We collaborate with the office of diversity and inclusion often, and . . . we were talking ahead of time and we said, ‘We want to do something for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but what should it be? ’ In the past we’ve done a service project, and we decided we wanted to do that again. It’s a good tradition that . . . I would like to see continue
in the future between the organization and the office, just because giving back to the community is important. Especially in the U.S., it’s predominantly people of color who are living in poverty,so if we can do anything to help people in that situation and give back to the community, I think it’s a really powerful and good thing to do.”

Tucked away near North University Drive, the Fargo Emergency Food Pantry functions with just a handful of employees and lots of community volunteers. While the MSUM volunteers worked on one side of the large, warehouse-style building, another volunteer group sorted donations by type and expiration date. The interior of the food pantry closely resembles a mini food bank, with huge shelves of pallets extending to the ceiling and a small bank of refrigerators with perishable goods against one wall.

For their work at the food pantry, seven of the MSUM volunteers put together birthday bags for families  with children. The bags each contain a box of cake mix, a container of frosting, a birthday card and a new toy. The other four volunteers put up decorations to make the location festive for Giving Hearts Day, an annual fundraising drive for the state of North Dakota. For several of the students, it was their first time ever visiting a food shelter, so they had no idea what to expect.

“I never knew that this place existed,” said Rosine Nkulu Ngoie Mukuyuwe, an MSUM student who helped with decorating. “Even if I had just crossed the road, I never knew that [it was a food pantry].”

Familiar or not though, most students agreed it was a positive experience overall. Plus, several students were able to get ahead on their international student service hours or receive extra credit in addition to the rewards of the service work itself.

“For international students we have to do some volunteer hours outside of campus, so
it should be a good thing,” MSUM volunteer Naimanjin Erdenebileg said. “Right now it’s not that busy, since school just started, so it’s better to go start some volunteer hours.”

Erdenebileg added that the convenience of the event was also very attractive to her and other international students.

“It’s close, not far from downtown, not far from campus. Convenient!” Erdenebileg said. “The coordinator (Olivia Matthews) gave us a ride in the MSUM van, so it was very convenient. We just went to the office of diversity and inclusion and they are taking care of the volunteers, so they gave us a ride. Many international students don’t have cars.”

If given the opportunity, several volunteers eagerly expressed interest in coming back, including Yaa Pokua Osei Sarpong, another student volunteering with decorations.

“I hope people will come here,” Sarpong said.“And I’m just surprised at the number of people who come here to experience it. And many of them are volunteers, they don’t work here. I don’t know why, but I want to come back.”

Byler, who has been involved with the annual project for several years,said most people come back after having a taste of a volunteering experience.

“Every one has their first time volunteering, and they have no idea what to expect,” Byler said. “Once you get your feet wet and you know what it’s like, it’s not that hard to take an hour or so out of your day and to stop by. Even once a week, once a month, once a year, whatever. If you can make time for it in your schedule, it doesn’t take a lot of time, and you’re helping out a lot of people by doing that.”

In her years of involvement with BSU and other student organizations, Byler definitely agrees that she has reaped the benefits of her volunteer work.

“I do a lot of reading and educating myself on different issues and stuff, and that’s one thing, but to actually get your hands dirty, whatever volunteering it is, to actually go out and make an impact, it’s very rewarding,” Byler said. “It feels good because I’m not in a position where I need to come here and get food, but I can still sympathize and empathize with the people who do, and so the fact that I have the privilege of not needing that, to come here and spend an hour or two is no big deal. To be able to take my free time and use it for something good, instead of sitting at home watching TV for an hour, I think is more rewarding.”

With all the potential benefits of serving the community, Byler said the BSU is considering adding a second service project later in spring semester. “I’d love to hopefully grow and run more. Black History Month (in February) for our organization is where we spend a lot of our annual budget with events,” Byler said. “After that we have a break until our end-
of-the-year banquet. So we are talking as an organization about what can we do from February until April; there’s a big gap there, and another service project is definitely something that we are considering.”

Byler also pointed out that the consistency of having a Martin Luther King Jr. service project ever y single year has helped spread the word of the project to more and more people each time, and she hopes to see a similar pattern with other events.

“It’s definitely been the general trend for all of our events, at least the recurring ones, is that every year more and more people have heard about it, so then more and more people can make it to our events every year,” Byler said. “ That’s really cool to see, especially on a predominantly white campus.”

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day marked more than just the historic Civil Rights Movement activist—it also marked an important period in our nation’s history of race and race relations as our first black president left office. For Byler, it made the celebration hold even more meaning. “I mean, he was our first black president, and obviously who knows when we’re going to have another one. It does make it a little bit more special. But at the same time, it can make coming years even more special because we don’t have a black person at the head of office anymore. So because of that, people of color’s needs might not be at the top of the priority list, so I guess it does make things a little different.”

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