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The value of service

Column by Tom Perriello

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday a national day of service. Each year, Americans of all ages and backgrounds come together on this day to take up Dr. King’s call to action and make it “a day on, not a day off.” The King Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, addresses social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community.”

Last year, I had the privilege of joining students from Longwood University at their annual MLK Service Challenge. We went to the Stepping Stones Preschool in Farmville and painted a classroom. I was so impressed and humbled by these young people’s dedication to serving their community, and the gratitude of the children and parents was evident on their faces. All over the Fifth District, there are schools, churches, community groups and nonprofit organizations organizing service activities. I encourage you to call community groups in your area to find out what’s going on.

Even if there’s no formally organized activity, you can serve on your own with family and friends. For example, preparing and delivering meals to homebound elderly, cleaning up parks and community centers, collecting food and clothing for local agencies, reading to children, and much more. For some ideas on service activities and helpful tools, visit

Service isn’t just something to do for one day, either. There are full-time service opportunities available through AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America. For people in job transition or looking to gain a new set of skills, a full-time position with AmeriCorps is a wonderful option. You would address critical community needs, like tutoring and mentoring youth, fighting illiteracy, improving health services, and building affordable housing – all while earning a $4,725 award to pay for college, graduate school, or to pay back qualified student loans. (The education award will soon increase to $5,350 as a result of recent legislation I supported.) Some AmeriCorps members may also receive a modest living allowance during their term of service.

In April of 2009, President Obama signed into law the Serve America Act, which I supported, to triple the number of AmeriCorps members. I was also proud to have written an amendment in the bill that will enlist alumni of national service programs who elect to be mobilized in times of national emergency or natural disasters. Learn more about becoming an AmeriCorps member by visiting or calling 1-800-942-2677.

Neither the public nor the private sector can solve every problem, but together we can when each of us answers the call to serve in our homes, our communities, our churches, and our schools. I believe there is no better way to honor Dr. King’s legacy than through service to community and country, and I hope you will join me on January 18, 2010, in bringing his dream a little closer to reality.

Please feel free to contact me to share your concerns and ideas. You may call 1-888-4-TOM4US (1-888-486-6487); write to 1520 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515; or visit to sign up for my weekly e-newsletter.


Tom Perriello represents the Fifth District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives.


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