With the community still in the throes of a pandemic, the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service had a different feel this year.
Absent were the teams of young men and women fanning out across the community to help elderly neighbors better insulate their homes or clean up churches and local nonprofit agency offices.
But there was still plenty of passion for social justice and help for the less fortunate.
Northern Berkshire Community Coalition volunteers were staffing collection centers at UNO in North Adams and at the First Congregational Church of Williamstown, where donors could drop off nonperishable food items, or pick up cards and letters to send to local nursing homes. Some dropped off mittens, hats and other warm clothes, all to be distributed to struggling families later.
Instead of joining an organized drive to help folks in their homes, local volunteers were encouraged to help out their friends and neighbors any way they can, including shoveling walkways and driveways, volunteer Liz Boland said while waiting for more donors at UNO.
On previous MLK Day of Service events, volunteers would have gathered at MCLA for a free lunch donated by local restaurants. Not this year. There were no large gatherings, no group lunch. And local politicians who typically would join in and roll up their sleeves, like everyone else, were kept at bay by the pandemic.
State Sen. Adam Hinds offered some online words of comfort for those who missed gathering with their friends, neighbors and fellow volunteers.
“This moment calls for a different honoring of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said in a social media post, which included a photo from a previous year’s event. “We cannot serve together in person like this today. But we can commit to fight for racial and economic justice every single day. Every one of us can take that effort into our work places, the institutions we are a part of, our communities, our families, in our own relationships and our actions. And we must.”
One tradition endured this year: the coalition awarded the MLK Day of Service Peacemaker Award. This year it was presented virtually to local activist Bilal Ansari of Williamstown.
Wendy Penner, director of prevention and recovery for the organization, made the announcement online.
“Bilal truly embodies the spirit of the Peacemaker Award, as someone with a passion for social justice and a willingness to help people have hard conversations with respect and compassion,” she said. “Bilal has dedicated himself tirelessly to racial equity advocacy and action in Williamstown.”
She noted that Ansari worked with Higher Ground to help residents displaced by flooding at The Spruces. He also has served on the Higher Ground and Affordable Housing committees. He has worked as a founding member of the town’s DIRE (Diversity Inclusion and Racial Equity) committee and the Williamstown Racial Justice and Police Reform committee, and helped advocate that the town adopt the Not In Our County pledge at town meeting.
“Thank you, Bilal, for helping us all to be better,” Penner said.
Ansari, in an online video, said he is “grateful and honored” by the award. But he reflected the spirit of the award back to the coalition’s volunteers.
“Every year you show up and you do amazing things,” he said. “Thanks to all of you who quietly serve — with names that people will never know — but you’re always there, serving.”
In Great Barrington, the multicultural organization Bridge also held a food drive at the First Congregational Church, as well as virtual events throughout the day, including Stop The Hate pledges, Valentine cards for seniors and art projects inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
And in Pittsfield, about 100 volunteers for the Berkshire United Way handed out 550 bags, with 24 pounds of nonperishable food in each, to hungry families at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires. Another 100 bags of food were distributed at Price Memorial Church.
Dan Joslin, program director of the Boys & Girls Club, said his staff was collaborating with the United Way, while still handling about 50 children in the day care program.
“So, we are teaching and learning today,” he said.