PARAMUS, NJ — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?”
On Martin Luther King Day — the week following what would have been the lauded civil rights activist’s 63rd birthday — more than 700 middle school students spanning diverse religious and cultural backgrounds across Bergen County’s 70 municipalities congregated inside the gymnasium at Bergen Community College Monday afternoon to take part in the Fourth Annual We The People's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service event. “We The People” is a nonprofit organization created by Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur. The annual event summons students to partake in a series of service-minded projects for people in need to carry the torch of King’s blazing legacy of community service.
“In Bergen County, in every single town, there’s someone who is receiving food stamps,” said Zur. “In every single town, there is someone who is dealing with mental health issues or physical health issues, or dealing with housing insecurity. Who are dealing with issues in their own family, and you are going to be part of the solution today. You are going to be taking proactive steps to help them.”
She continued, “Dr. King once said that we may have come in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now. We are part of one community. We rise and we fall together and in this time, in this state and our country, where we’re seeing increasing incidents of hate, opportunities like this where we get to know each other, where we roll up our sleeves and work for our mutual betterment, in these moments, where we learn that our diversity is our strength — these moments are important.”
Joining Zur that day to welcome the 700-plus children to the Day of Service event, sponsored by Bergen Community College, Inserra Supermarkets and Fuel 4, was First Lady Tammy Murphy, Bergen County Freeholder Steven Tanelli, Bergen County Executive James Tedesco, and Bergen Community College Interim President Anthony Russo and Assemblywoman Lisa Swain.
After fueling up on pizza, kids took to benches penning heartfelt thank-you notes to troops overseas, thanking them for “keeping us safe” and “making our life great.” Others engaged in a color-by-numbers art project — the painted pictures of which were coalesced into an image of King that will be part of a traveling exhibit. Kids took seats around tables to knot fringes on fleece blankets that will be donated to Project Linus, a nonprofit that provides sick children with warm blankets, and to the senior citizens residing at the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus.
Children also prepared hygiene kits for the Bergen County Homeless Shelter, go-bags and stuffed animals, which will be sent to Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) of New Jersey, a nonprofit that advocates for the best interests of children removed from their homes because of abuse and/or neglect; the Center for Hope and Safety, a nonprofit in Rochelle Park dedicated to assisting victims and their children of domestic violence; Project SARAH (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) which offers services to domestic violence victims who are of Orthodox Jewish communities; and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, among others.
Apart from being of service, children congregated into a conversation station to acquaint themselves with their peers, learning about their religions, favorite foods, the holidays they celebrate, and stimulating dialogues about Martin Luther King and his message of hope and altruistic spirit.
“The key for today is connecting with kids who may pray differently or come from a different country or origin, or different culture, but who have so much in common with each and every one of you,” explained Zur to the children before the day’s events began.
She said the afternoon afforded participants a chance to put cell phones away and forge genuine connections with their fellow peers to learn of their uniqueness, “feel good” about helping their neighbors in need, and “empower each other to be part of the solutions.”
Murphy said she hoped the children “caught the service bug” to continue their good deeds outside of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“If you’re really going to honor his legacy, it’s not just a single day in every year,” said Murphy. “It’s every day.”