Why I Took My 6 Year-Old Volunteering on MLK Day of Service

By United Way of King County, on February 6, 2020 | In Change Makers, Events, Volunteering

Editor’s note: This blog was written by Change Maker donor Kayleen, who volunteered with her son on MLK Day of Service at the Immanuel Community Services Food Bank in Seattle.

From the time I was a small child, I knew I wanted to one day become a mom. The day my son was born was everything I could have hoped for—my dreams realized in this tiny little human. But when I packed him into his car seat to go home, the panic set in. I couldn’t believe the nurses were letting me leave with a child, that, in that moment of humility, I felt wholly unqualified to care for. I sat in the back seat holding those tiny fingers, marveling in this newfound responsibility.

I found myself making a mental list of all the things I hoped he would be. I wanted him to be smart, brave, athletic, adventurous, and inquisitive. I wanted him to have friends and like music and be comfortable in his skin. Above all those things, the thing I want most is for him to be kind. I’m not talking about the kindness that comes from saying please and thank you and smiling at strangers. I’m talking about the kindness that is deeply rooted in the soul, authentic, and radiates outward. The kindness that comes from seeing value in every person regardless of what they look like, understanding the importance of serving your community, talking honestly about social issues and being grateful that we are in a position to make a positive impact through these small acts of generosity. This is why we volunteer.

MLK Day of Service was an opportunity to practice growing our kindness and opened the door to conversations I hope to keep having with my son throughout his life. My son, now 6 years old, and I spent the day at Immanuel Community Services (ICS), whose mission is to alleviate the effects of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and addiction by providing community-based social services to those in need. Their programs include a Recovery Center, Community Lunch Program, Food Bank, and Hygiene Center, all of which run together in perfect harmony to maximize efficiency.

At the start of the day, we had a conversation around a table with Shawna McMahon, the Executive Director of ICS. She went in-depth about the programs they operate. I was blown away by not only the magnitude of what they accomplish during the week from a programmatic level, but also by the amount of compassion they have for the friends they serve. In 2018, ICS served over 32,000 meals to people experiencing hunger and distributed 308,514 pounds of food, which is amazing in its own right. As I spoke more to Shawna, I learned they run their organization on only 2.6 paid staff members. I was speechless.

We spent most of the day sorting donations and making signs. With each item sorted, we talked about why it was needed. We ended the day sorting apples, which was the highlight for both my son and I. Not only did my son understand that this work was important, but we were able to connect with the customers over a basic human need: food.

“…my plan is to continue to volunteer and expose my child to opportunities to leave the world better than he found it.”

Food is something we love in our household and often take for granted. I struggled to find the words to explain to my son what food insecurity is and why it persists at disproportionately high levels for people of color. I struggle to explain racial inequity and the true impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. I struggle to explain what it means to be unhoused and why it’s hard for some people to show love and compassion for the community’s most vulnerable populations.

These are tough conversations to have with a kindergartener and I’m often unsure if my message is landing. There are so many uncertainties in life. Unfortunately, we learned that there are many people right here in Seattle who are uncertain of where their next meal will come from, or where to sleep at night. I’m grateful that most of my uncertainties center on whether or not I’m parenting right. But in the midst of all this unknowing, my plan is to continue to volunteer and expose my child to opportunities to leave the world better than he found it. The path of authentic human kindness isn’t always easy—but to honor Martin Luther King Jr., we have decided to stick with love.


If you’re interested in volunteering, there are lots of upcoming opportunities available, including family-friendly opportunities centered around hunger (like what Kayleen and her son participated in) or food-related opportunities in general. You can also search all upcoming volunteer opportunities to find something that best fits your interests and schedule.


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