What Do My Dad, Gary Coleman, and MLK Have in Common? My Path to Community Service

Growing up, my father generally discouraged us kids from watching TV with the exception of “educational” programs.  When planning for a family outing, he announced our departure time and stressed being ready on time.  However, at the stated time of departure, he would say to us, “Go ahead and watch a little bit of junk TV”.  “Junk TV” was his nickname for television that was not of exceptional quality and thus was on par with junk food.  This was code for our father will delay our departure because he wants to handwrite one or more letters to his elected officials.  When the first sitcom rerun ended he would then say, “Why don’t you watch Different Strokes now?”  We jokingly replied in the voice of the late actor Gary Coleman’s popular character, Arnold, “What-ch-you talking about, Father”?  This is how we garnered additional “screen time” of that era, the 1980’s. 

It seemed to me that my father felt that writing to his elected officials regarding issues of concern was an obligation in a participatory democracy.  His letters were carefully crafted, complete with exquisite penmanship.  Each letter of a word received multiple pen strokes so to command attention.  He continued writing those letters well into the ninth decade of his life, and only stopped because he passed on.  Simply put, my father walked the talk.  He cared about the world and lived his beliefs.  His favorite quote was, “Dream no small dreams, for they do not stir my blood” (author unknown).  Whether it was writing those letters or protesting the illegal slaughter of whales—his life was filled with purpose.  He also celebrated his friends who created a better world—whether they were prominent in Rotary’s global campaign to eradicate polio—or spent over a decade creating a marine sanctuary in Australia.  The mementos of their accomplishments were proudly displayed in the “Wall of Fame” he created in his kitchen.  I believe the important role positive social change played in his life made an impact on mine.   

An important transition in my life came when I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for the first time as an undergraduate.  I was awestruck by the courage, coordination, and unwavering dedication of those advancing civil rights.  I was becoming keenly aware of the many who stood to overcome the impossible—whether it be Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, or Malcolm X.

Upon becoming a credentialed healthcare provider, I was bestowed with the honor of walking into a patient’s life and helping them improve their health outcomes—whether it was someone with a bilateral knee amputation because of uncontrolled diabetes—or an immunocompromised cancer patient.  It became clear to me then:  If you have the fortune of good health, you should give back for the fortune you have.

While in my early 20’s and working in Boston, I decided to bypass the festivities of Thanksgiving Day and volunteer instead.  That is, to give on Thanksgiving Day.  I called every homeless shelter in Boston, cheerfully asking to volunteer—but nearly every one said they already had too many volunteers.  Finally, the program manager at the Boston Rescue Mission said, “Can you volunteer with us on another day?  That started my commitment to volunteer service—whether it be at the Boston Rescue Mission—the Montgomery County (Maryland) Weekend/Evening Volunteer program—or creating and leading a community service team for nearly a decade in my Seattle neighborhood where I stopped counting after we’d picked up our 1,000th bag of litter and the 300th bag of recyclable items.  In my role as a Native Plant Steward, I routinely engage in environmental restoration.  I faithfully participate in Walden University’s annual Global Days of Service.  In fact, I consider our Global Days of Service event with the reverence of a major holiday that I look forward to every year.

Overall, when examining the best decisions I’ve made in my life thus far, steadfast participation in community service ranks among them.  Additionally, I recently learned that I’m not the only one whose father (my cousin) would insist the family be ready to go at a declared time for a family outing—but then be tardy himself.  It was my second cousin Lorena who said her father does the same thing.  Before I knew she was visiting both Seattle and me for the first time, I’d planned to volunteer in my local old growth forest (Deadhorse Canyon) that weekend, removing invasive species.  I told her of my volunteer obligation but insisted I could skip it as there was much for her to see in and around Seattle…Pike Place Market…Mount Rainier National Park…the Hoh Rain Forest…Mount Baker.  She replied, “Let’s spend our time in Seattle—that way we can volunteer, too”

Irana W. Hawkins, PhD, MPH, RDN

Contributing Faculty, Doctoral Programs in Public Health College of Health Sciences

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