AmeriCorps member, Jaswin Sangha, at Bronx Early College Academy reflects on her experience serving alongside her students at City Year's MLK Day of Service in Astoria, Queens. Check out more photos from the event here.

Approximately 700 volunteers, alumni, sponsors, and friends came out to Astoria, Queens to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. These volunteers treated MLK Day as a day “ON” by doing service projects at IS126Q, one of the middle schools City Year New York serves. The only thing that got me through the cold walk to the school was the sheer excitement I had for the fact that this was the first time the entire corps was going to be together since the beginning of service, and it was a reunion for a cause greater than ourselves. 

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From power greeting to final dismissal, the enthusiastic energy didn’t stop. Corps members from all over the city excitedly hugged each other and reconnected over how our time in our schools was going so far, while leading and volunteering in projects such as building bookshelves, cleaning out classrooms, and painting murals of famous leaders. It was a beautiful sight to see so many happy hands working together for the students of IS126 to come in the next school day to a renovated and inspirational space.

The only thing that got me through the cold walk to the school was the sheer excitement I had for the fact that this was the first time the entire corps was going to be together since the beginning of service, and it was a reunion for a cause greater than ourselves.

I got particularly excited at the sight of five students making their way to the fourth floor, where my team and I were painting a mural of Michael Jordan, among several other teams and paintings with quotes regarding the importance of ambition, education, and service. These five volunteers were one of select groups from schools CYNY serves that were given the opportunity to invite outstanding students to come out to Astoria and work alongside us and other projects to assist people struggling with cancer, unstable housing, etc. The fact that Bronx Early College Academy students got to be there and work alongside their City Year mentors was a definite highlight of my service so far. And Team BECA absolutely embarrassed our students with high-fives and hugs and smiles, despite them telling us “to keep it cool because it’s not a big deal”.  

But it was a big deal. The fact that these 6th and 7th graders chose to wake up early on what they would typically have perceived as a day “off” and shifted their thinking to taking the day on was MLK’s legacy at work. One of the girls I mentor, work with a lot in our afterschool program, and have gotten very close to, dived right into the mural project. I directed her to where she could take off her coat, and she immediately rolled up her sleeves, ready to receive a paintbrush and fill in the finer details of an Isabel Allende mural. (She even took the initiative to clean up some of the outlining I did on a quote by Michael Jordan.) 

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Time flew as we chatted, combining our passion for creative expression with community service, and before I knew it, my Program Manager who had escorted them to the school was telling the students to say goodbye to their corps member. One of the 7th graders with a strong love for art didn’t want to leave, and quite honestly, we didn’t want them to either. They were getting to see us and contribute to something altruistic and wonderful outside of the environment they usually see us in, and it was a great relationship building/strengthening moment. And even though we spend hours upon hours with these students five days a week, the feelings of missing their uplifting spirits and bubbly personalities hit us all fairly quickly after they left.

When I saw them the next day at morning greeting and community meeting, I thanked them all for taking the time to join us and serve the Astoria community. I also asked them how they liked MLK Day and being a part of City Year’s biggest service project of the year, and I received a lot of “It was fun, I liked it.” It wasn’t until I asked why they decided to come and serve that I got the deeper answers. 

One of the 6th graders explained how he knew he was going to have more days “off” later on in the school year, and he knew that he was going to spend that time doing things that other kids may not be able to enjoy, such as seeing family, playing video games, or eating their favorite foods. It became clear to me that he recognized how fortunate he was to have that luxury, and he wanted to spend the time he had creating something meaningful for kids his age who might not.

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Later in the morning and before I headed to the first class of the day, one of my 7th graders who attended MLK Day was speaking to her friends who asked why she didn’t just sleep in like they did. I was beyond happy to overhear her tell them with conviction: “If you’re able to help someone out, there’s no reason not to.” City Year lives by that value, and I’m proud to be a corps member who gets to witness MLK’s legacy carrying on in students like this.

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