Granite State Volunteers Honor MLK’s Legacy

Union Leader Correspondent

About 200 AmeriCorps volunteers attending a MLK Jr. Day of Service yesterday at St. Anselm College on Monday. (CASSIDY SWANSON/Union Leader Correspondent)

GOFFSTOWN — In a sermon just four days before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged Americans to be more aware of the poverty around them. In New Hampshire, AmeriCorps volunteers lived out that challenge on King’s namesake holiday.

“You put your bodies and souls in motion, every day of your service,” Gretchen Berger-Wabuti, executive director of Volunteer NH, said to volunteers. “Today is no different for you, because for National Service members, Martin Luther King Day is a day on, and not a day off.”

About 200 AmeriCorps volunteers serving at various nonprofit organizations aroung the state came together at the St. Anselm College Institute of Politics on Monday for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. Volunteers were asked to bring non-perishable food items and participated in a series of educational workshops and panels, designed around the ideals of both King and AmeriCorps, a division of the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Shireen Tilley, state director for CNCS, recognized each participant for “answering the call” to spend a year of their lives in service to others.

“There’s a saying that I love: ‘The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose,’” she said. “I want you to know that this is only the beginning of your life of purpose, that there are so many needs for our country, and there is so, so much each individual can do to change the world, to make it a better place.”

Berger-Wabuti said she hoped the day would make the volunteers that much more aware of the plight of the poor populations they serve daily.

“Many Americans go their entire lives without knowing poverty, without ever seeing it,” she said, adding that New Hampshire’s homeless population has reached about 1,300. “We’re here today because every one of you is committed to seeing poverty in America, and each one of you is committed to making a difference.”

Volunteers took part in an Oxfam “Hunger Banquet” organized by Amanda Forget, a member of AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program. Each volunteer was told they would be assigned to a high, middle or low income group, and was given a bagged lunch reflecting what they might have to eat given their socio-economic standing.

Forget told the volunteers that over 2.5 billion people live in poverty worldwide. Chronic hunger affects 870,000,000 people, and a child dies from malnutrition and other preventable causes every nine seconds.

“You may think hunger is about too many people and too little food; that is not the case,” she said. “Hunger is about power. Its roots lie in inequalities in access to resources. The results are illiteracy, poverty, war and the inability families to grow and buy food.”

“Your presence here today shows you are concerned, you want to learn more, you want to make a difference,” she continued. “The way we see it, poverty is solvable.”

Participants also listened to a panel on homelessness in the state featuring members of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness’ Granite Leaders program. Chrissy Simonds, who became homeless with her son after escaping an abusive relationship, told the volunteers that she appreciated that they were learning about the realities of homelessness and poverty firsthand in their work, and by living on a meager stipend.

“You guys are living it with us,” Simonds said. “You guys are touching our lives. You might not realize it, but you are making a difference.”

Tilley said that many former AmeriCorps members go onto careers in service, from education to politics to working for nonprofits.

“We try and provide a lot of training opportunities to maximize their potential, so that when they come out of their year of service, not only have they given back to their country, but they’re a more enriched person to go on and become a leader in their community,” she said. “This is a training opportunity, as well as a day for reflection and thinking about what their year of service really means.”

Berger-Wabuti, a former VISTA, said she was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers.

“I get charged just walking in the room,” she said. “When you’re in a room with others that have that same call to service, and who really have dedicated themselves to working on the same issues that you’ve dedicated yourself to, it can be very powerful.”

Volunteers shared Berger-Wabuti’s sentiment. Marcos Diaz, a VISTA at Nashua Community College, said the events of the day helped put his mission in perspective.

“Sometimes, we don’t take the time to sit down and understand what the issues are,” Diaz said. “In order to help, first, we have to figure out what we need to help with.”

Ian Umphrey, a VISTA at Families in Transition – New Horizons in Manchester, said the actitivies and discussions would help the participants start “bigger conversations about volunteerism,” in the communities where they work.

“Our service is about more than the work that we do,” he said. “It’s also about inspiring a new form of citizenship, where people are actively engaged in their communities.”

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