After writing a column last week criticizing the Quakertown Community School District for canceling the Martin Luther King holiday, it felt especially good Monday to be in the company of so many others who believe, as I do, that this federal day off is sacred.

For me it started around 9:15 a.m., when I arrived at Girard College for the 23rd annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service. Thousands of people, many wearing white King Day of Service T-shirts, were already prepping food for distribution to various pantries. Registration started at 8 and people must have taken it seriously. As looked around, I silently berated myself for not having shown up earlier. The place was jumping with music and activity.

"This is a holiday that ought to be a day off where we remember Dr. King, and it's for that purpose," Gov. Wolf told me as he stood in a line of dignitaries putting cups of rice into plastic bags.

Packing rice Monday at the King Day of Service at Girard College (from left): Girard president Ava Willis-Barksdale, Gov. Wolf and his wife Frances, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.
Jessica Griffin
Packing rice Monday at the King Day of Service at Girard College (from left): Girard president Ava Willis-Barksdale, Gov. Wolf and his wife Frances, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.

I watched as a few students from Germantown Friends School cut fresh flowers and carefully arranged them before setting them aside to be distributed by Meals on Wheels volunteers to homebound seniors and others in Roxborough. Volunteers stood behind metal racks and sorted dark suits donated from Men's Wearhouse.

School-age drummers practiced their beats on African drums as Peco employees and volunteers wrote positive affirmations and other messages on greeting cards that will accompany donations from the Career Wardrobe.

Taking it all in was dizzying. And inspiring.

"I can tell you that there are 150,000 people throughout the community who are engaged. Thousands of those are students," said Todd Bernstein, president of Global Citizen and the founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service. "They realize that Dr. King was a champion of action. What they are doing is embracing that living legacy, and they're in the community doing selfless acts of service on this day. And to really solve those challenges, we have to be engaged every day."

That's why I found Quakertown's decision to cancel the King holiday to make up for a snow day so disheartening. It was a missed opportunity for youngsters to discover the joy of giving back. Yes, the students reportedly had instruction about King in their social studies classes, but it could have been so much more.

Martin Luther King Day of Service

Posted by Jenice Armstrong on Monday, January 15, 2018

As I wrote last week, I found the timing of the decision especially unfortunate given last October's ugly racial incident at the high school, where black students from Cheltenham High complained of being called the n-word and taunted by cries of "Black lives don't matter." Rocks reportedly were thrown at Cheltenham's buses as they drove off. Quakertown's superintendent apologized profusely in the aftermath and the school board unanimously authorized district-wide cultural sensitivity training for administrators through the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.

Since then, I've heard from upset students and readers who thought the district had been unfairly smeared by last October's incident and who also pointed out that if students in the Quakertown district would have had the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday off, they would have just used it as a day of relaxing or playing Xbox or catching up on homework.

Big sigh.

I get their point. I really, really do.

Young people need to be in school every day they can. And we all know that King was a big believer in education as well as in ensuring equal access for all children regardless of their skin color.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it off-putting just how little regard some have for this important, hard-won holiday honoring the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. You don't hear those arguments about, say, Presidents' Day, a day that has become largely meaningless.Why the casual disregard for the King holiday?

Volunteers work during the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service on Monday at Girard College.
Jessica Griffin
Volunteers work during the Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service on Monday at Girard College.

Participating in this annual day of service could be a first step toward getting more deeply involved in community activism.

It was for me.

Before leaving Girard College on Monday, I volunteered for a walk in September to raise awareness and funds for those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

I had no intention of doing that before I arrived, but the spirit in that room was infectious. It was as if King's spirit were in those walls repeating his famous quote:

"Everybody can be great … Because anybody can serve."