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AmeriCorps member blog: 'Inspired and encouraged'

By Katie Manzullo-Thomas

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not a day to serve by yourself. As an AmeriCorps member, I’ve dedicated nearly a year of my life to full-time service with Habitat for Humanity. In my role as community outreach coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area in Pennsylvania, I focus on Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. The goal of NRI is to lift up entire communities through a holistic approach. For us, this includes community partnerships, affordable housing solutions, neighborhood clean-ups and gardens and encouraging grass-roots activism.

Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area’s four AmeriCorps members: (left to right) Katie Manzullo-Thomas, Scott Endicott, Zoe Perrin and Anna Spiess.

Believing that collaboration is one of our greatest strengths, we partnered with a number of local organizations for a joint MLK Day of Service project in the Allison Hill community. Allison Hill has some of the highest instances of crime and blight in Harrisburg - but it also has a huge number of dedicated, compassionate neighbors, for whom service is a part of everyday life. Habitat has been invested in the community since 1986, completing more than 60 new and rehabilitated homes, as well as more than 150 critical home repairs.

We think Allison Hill is a place that deserves our time, energy and resources and are seeking to respond to community aspirations, empower residents to seek change and support the development of sustained neighborhood revival. We can’t, and don’t, do this alone. Partnerships with existing organizations, community members and service providers are critical and amplify our combined efforts.

After months of planning with our partners and listening to neighborhood voices to identify specific community needs, more than a dozen projects were selected for our Day of Service event. We hosted a lunch program packed with incredible speakers, nominated two local leaders for the Drum Major for Service award and shared organizational strengths with one another. From the outside, this might not have looked like a typical Habitat for Humanity event; there were few hardhats or hammers to be found. In reality, the day actually typified how we use NRI principles at Habitat for Humanity.

Members of the Empower Hour Girls program paint rain barrels, which will reduce storm-water runoff in Harrisburg neighborhoods.

Volunteers spread out all around the neighborhood - picking up litter, sorting clothing bank donations, preparing meals for the homeless, cleaning classrooms at a community art program, rehabbing a property to house homeless women and children, painting plywood to board up vacant buildings and more.

On the anniversary of the March on Washington I heard a story that gave a behind-the-scenes perspective on a pivotal moment. Dr. King was about 12 minutes in to his prepared remarks but the words we all remember weren’t in his notes that day - they were prompted by Mahalia Jackson. In front of more than a quarter of a million people, Jackson called out to Dr. King. ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she said, “Tell them about the dream, Doctor.” King diverted from his prepared remarks and spoke the words that would become part of his legacy.

Dr. King was imperfect - just a man, after all. He needed to be inspired and encouraged in order to become the person we now honor with a National Day of Service. He drew his inspiration from Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, and encouragement from his father and the people who marched by his side. With this inspiration and encouragement, an imperfect man was able to point a nation towards perfection, towards the beloved community.

I think we all want to serve, but like Dr. King, we need to be inspired and encouraged. We need people in our lives who will celebrate our choices to serve, who will join us in picking up a hammer or a stack of flyers, who will get us through the times when we feel hopeless. We need service to be valued in our society and we need community organizations that will provide opportunities for service and leadership. 

Volunteers served shut-in neighbors by completing household chores that are virtually impossible for them, such as laundry.

Dr. King’s radical message of service has, in part, inspired me to action, as do the people in Allison Hill who model consistent, selfless service every day of the year - the resident who worked through personal grief to lead a litter cleanup on Monday, the retired women and men who join us on our construction sites every single week, the state senator who was one of the very first to show up and helped us with the chairs for the hundreds that came. They get it. They all know that we are compelled to serve, no matter our own life situation.

At Habitat for Humanity here in Harrisburg, we know that one of our biggest roles is to use NRI principles to empower more residents. We lend our support to people in our community who are fulfilling the aspirations of their neighborhood.

For those who planned this MLK Day of Service, it was a beautiful day. Around 220 volunteers showed up to serve, far exceeding our expectations. We collectively accomplished what we set out to do - rain barrels were painted, terminally ill neighbors had clean laundry, streets were free of litter and local youth had inspired us with their poetry. There was an added benefit,  no one organization can lay claim to the success of the events that provided neighbors the opportunity to kick off their year with a day of serving others. 

I hope the MLK Day of Service encouraged those who serve already, as well as those who have yet to find their niche. I walked away bursting with energy to continue serving as an AmeriCorps member and I hope our imperfect event pointed others towards perfection. 

Katie Manzullo-Thomas is an AmeriCorps member serving as the community outreach coordinator with Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Harrisburg Area in Pennsylvania.