This article was originally published on January 20, 2020.
Retired Mathematics Faculty Helen Santiz has walked in silence across the bridge in Selma, Ala, to remember the peaceful Civil Rights demonstrators who were met with violence. She’s visited the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. And she’s listened to the recording of King’s March 14, 1968 speech to Grosse Pointe residents, which is now considered the precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech. But prior to doing any of this, she served on the first UM-Dearborn’s Martin Luther King Day of Service planning committee nearly 30 years ago. And she’s participated in every one since.
Santiz observed that the event teaches what Dr. King stood for. It reminds us to pay attention and to not forget about our nation's ugly history. And it's important to get involved so we can do better as a community. “I didn’t know how to get involved in his legacy until I joined the committee; once I did, it encouraged me to find other ways to learn about Dr. King. It all started here at UM-Dearborn.”
Now 80, Santiz is still very involved in UM-Dearborn's MLK Day of Service, continuously greeting volunteers and giving directions. She said it’s encouraging to see the steady stream of people filtering down the University Center hallway.
“(Former) Chancellor Blenda Wilson had the vision for this day. We weren’t sure if it would last beyond that first year — there was a blizzard and 12 inches of snow on the ground,” Santiz said. “But people showed up to do it again the next year. And it continued to grow. I’m confident that the event is here to stay.”
Now in its 27th year, more than 400 volunteers gathered in Kochoff Hall early Monday morning before heading out to one of the 21 MLK Day of Service sites, which ranged from food bank stocking at Gleaners to organizing clothing for a veteran’s thrift store. See photos from the 2020 event.
At the MLK Week Kickoff event, Chancellor Domenico Grasso welcomed the large crowd and had the group read a quote from King on the back of MLK Day of Service T-shirts: There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.
“We are all faced with difficult decisions. It can be easy to go with the flow, but sometimes you have to step out of the flow and do what’s right,” Grasso said. “That’s what’s embodied in all of the work that Dr. Martin Luther King did. And I feel that it’s what distinguishes our campus. People around the country are taking the day off and you are here to do something for others.”
As staff from UM-Dearborn and Henry Ford College — the campus’ co-partner in the event — checked in volunteers, a line of T-shirts hung above the crowd. They were from all of the previous MLK Days of Service; the 2020 shirt will join them soon. It’s been put aside to go up on the wall after the event.
Retired staff Karen Holland has a bit of inside information about that display: Most of them once belonged to her and Santiz. “When we were doing this event for about 20 years, we thought it would be nice to display the shirts in a permanent way — it worked out that between Helen and I, we had shirts that we kept that would cover all of the years,” said Holland, who also serves on the MLK Planning Committee and has volunteered every year since the first one. “Don’t ever take them out of the frames — they are hung strategically because they are used and there might be some paint on some of those.”
Chatting with a student before the kickoff event Monday, Santiz was asked if he’d see her at the Capuchin Community Service Center, the site where he was volunteering. When she remarked being too old for the labor involved there, the student replied, “You don’t look old and any age is the perfect age to volunteer.”
As the night sky became pink with the sunrise, Santiz lit up too. But it wasn’t because of the age compliment, she liked his view on community service.