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The ABCs of Servant Leadership and the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Group Working in an Urban Organic Community Garden
Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. 
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached these inspirational words about service in his sermon on “The Drum Major Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., on Feb. 4, 1968. Service to others is also embedded in the mission of AARP. AARP founder Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus’s vision of AARP and how she lived her life is reflected in her words “to serve, not to be served.” Three phenomenal volunteers of AARP exemplify the service examples of Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr., and Dr. Ethel Percy. In this article, they address why people serve, what they gain from service, and King’s legacy of service for civil rights.

Myra Walton-Basnight saw her parents, who didn’t have very much, give of themselves to the community. Her parents allowed people to come into their home for food and other items that they needed. Myra’s philosophy is when you give of yourself, it comes back to you in a multitude of ways. She views volunteering as something in you that you can give. She likes to bring things into people’s lives that they didn’t realize that they had inside of themselves. For example, she talked with a young lady at church who later revealed that Myra had said things to her that helped her grow in ways that she didn’t realize she needed to grow and said what she needed to hear. Myra strives to be authentic and real: “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Myra shows her caring in her volunteer activities with AARP, like organizing the AARP event Grandparents Day of Art and Activity, and her service with other organizations. While volunteering with the Chesapeake Task Force on Aging, Myra learned that seniors weren’t looking for big things, but were happy for small necessities. She views seniors as the most underserved in our communities and believes that when we lift up the least in society, we all have a chance to be better. She equates serving the least in our society with what King was endeavoring to do. Myra cautioned that you have to make sure that you’re serving where you’re gifted. She has been able to serve using the skills that she brings to the table. It makes Myra happy to give of herself.

Olivia Dabney was also raised in a family that believed in service. Her grandfather taught them that you don’t do things for money; you do things because your reward is from God. Her father taught them to always give. He also advised them not to look down on others other than to lift them up. Olivia believes that people benefit spiritually from serving others. She referred to King and his question “what are you doing for others?” She noted that King had a natural desire to serve; that he did not work for civil rights for rewards. Like King, Olivia is committed to serving the needs of others and the growth of people. She loves to help people.

Shortly after retiring, Olivia started volunteering at a hospital, then as an Alzheimer support group leader, and also as an ombudsman at a nursing home. She worked to ensure that nursing home residents got the help they needed by holding weekly meetings so that the residents could ask questions and be informed about their rights. At one point, Olivia was volunteering at five different places. Olivia gains happiness from volunteering and joy when she sees people getting services and the help that they need. She wants to see that people are being treated the way that God would want them to be treated. Olivia’s example of service has motivated her son, daughter-in-law, and her sister Mattie to volunteer. Mattie has volunteered for the same organizations as Olivia, including AARP. Olivia concluded: “We have to value others.”

Joyce Watson’s service also goes back to her childhood. As the oldest child in her family and immediate neighborhood and as the only female, she had to serve as an example. She had talents and used her talents to motivate others in her neighborhood. Her childhood served as the motivation for her to be a teacher: there was something about her that benefitted others. She enjoys reaching out and lifting others up. Although Joyce could have received financial support from an anesthesiologist that she worked for as an assistant during summers while in college if she changed her major and school to be an anesthesiologist, she declined because by teaching she could help others rise from their beginnings.

As a teacher, Joyce was active in professional associations at the local and state level. Initially, she was the only African American on the boards. However, Joyce’s desire to help superseded any concern about how she would be treated as the only African American. She saw needs and helped to fill those needs. When Joyce has extra time, she asks herself “what can I do to serve, to give others what they lack.” Joyce has a direct approach to service. When she thinks about King, she reflects that there were people who disagreed with his direct approach. He was adamant about how people of color should be treated; that we are human beings and you have to consider our needs. Joyce noted that King knew that he had something that others could use; that he started out just like us and motivated people just like us. Like King, Joyce has a purpose in her life. Serving others helps her fulfill her purpose. Helping others also gives her a sense of belonging; you’re part of the volunteer group.

Joyce noted that volunteering creates strong friendships; that the people she has met by serving have been amazing. In addition to AARP, Joyce volunteers for the Peninsula Agency on Aging. She is a TRIAD representative; an entity comprised of police, fire, senior agencies, and community representatives who meet monthly to promote activities and services for seniors. Joyce observed that volunteering helps you to live longer. She believes that if you stay at home thinking about every ache and pain, you will go downhill. She recommends that you get out there, get involved, and move your body. Joyce is making a difference and that’s what matters to her.

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