MLK Day of Service Luncheon

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service was a hit around St. Petersburg and the two neighboring counties who joined in on the act of giving January 20. A record number of volunteers gave of their time this year; and for that, they were honored for their efforts last Sat., Feb. 22.

“As I look at you all it’s such a great thing to see an array of people here today to celebrate what happened,” said James Robinson, Day of Service project manager.

Dollars, volunteer hours and percentages were rattled off and it was clear that the second year of the MLK Day of Service grants were put to good use. With over 2,000 volunteers providing a cumulative total of over 50,000 volunteer hours, the event was a success. Robinson valued the volunteer hours roughly at $347,000. The original investment from the state was a little over $260,000.

“I don’t have to tell you that one of the most important things when it comes to nonprofits agencies, any public entity that is receiving public dollars, outcome becomes very important,” Robinson said.

Awards were handed out to all the groups and individuals who participated in the Day of Service and smiles and looks of satisfaction permeated the room. Sixty-five projects were funded, but time only permitted a few people to come up and elaborate.

“This year we thought to bring in youth to work as leaders so they could show their fellow youths how to do it,” explained Robinson. “They did a tremendous job.”

Cayla Long was the student ambassador for Gramps Raising Grands, an organization that works with grandparents thrust into the role as primary caregiver. This year’s Day of Service grant allowed them to provide workshops geared at financial and legal advice for the surrogate parents, as well as, gift bags filled with goodies. They gave gasoline cards, resource guides, movie tickets, nutritional items, bookmarks, and slippers to the grandparents.

“I never thought I would give up one day from school to attend a MLK breakfast at the Coliseum,” Long said as she read from an essay she wrote about her experience. “But once I got started, I was so motivated; I just wanted to learn more.”

Other student ambassadors took to the stage to read their essays to the crowd. Naiya White, an ambassador for Sistahs Surviving Breast Cancer, recited her take on what it was like to volunteer citing her parents and grandparents as instilling positive values in her at an early age.

“Volunteering has become a major part of my life,” she said explaining her role at Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church on the Day of Service as one of helping out with health screenings for those worried about cancer or needing dental health. “If Dr. King could sacrifice his life for me, the least I could do was volunteer for a day.”

Sistahs Surviving Breast Cancer has over 40 members and meets each month. They have been actively supporting women in the community who’ve been diagnosed with breast and other types of cancer, for over seven years.

When Brandon McCoy discussed his time delivering gifts to area nursing homes alongside the Pinellas Opportunity Council, the smiles couldn’t be held back. The week before the event Brandon rode his bike to the office of the Pinellas Opportunity Council to fill the gift bags. On the day of service, he changed into his special t-shirt and met up with the others at the Job Corp Center. When he arrived at the North Rehabilitation Center he expected to drop off the gift bags and move on to the next nursing home. Instead, he was told to join in on the arts and crafts with the residents, make them feel good.

“I helped one gentleman paint an alligator,” Brandon said telling of his weariness in starting up a conversation with the man he was helping as well as the other residents at his table. “Just speaking with him was a feat of its own because of my extreme shyness.

 But when Brandon finished and got up to help out yet another person at the end of the table build a helicopter, he caught a smile on the face of the gentleman he had been working with. “It made me feel like I was making a difference already,” he said. “I didn’t realize that I could be such an instrumental joy in my community.”

This year marks the second time the Pinellas Opportunity Council has participated in the MLK Day of Service and credits the grant for allowing the organization to reach out and touch the smaller nursing homes and care facilities that normally don’t see outside visitors.

“This was an opportunity for the youth to interact with the residents,” said coordinator Joyce Robinson. “They danced, they made all kinds of crafts, they served muffins and we had conversation.”

On the day of service, 56 volunteers from that organization alone went to various homes throughout Pinellas. State Representative Darryl Rouson split his day between Sarasota and St. Petersburg reciting the large figure of volunteers engaged in public service between St. Petersburg, Manatee and Hillsborough counties.

“You have been a part of a critical and an important movement,” Rousson said. “Other communities are now wanting to be a part of it, that’s huge.”

Youth ambassadors were given certificates for their efforts and received a $100 gift card to Old Navy and a $50 dollar gift card to Chick-Fil-A. Recipients of the Signature Awards, where groups or organizations could be awarded up to $10,000 for a continuation of their projects, will be notified by email on Friday.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email

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