BY THOMAS LESKIN (STAFF [email protected]), Published: January 17, 2012
SCHUYLKILL HAVEN - Although to some, While Martin Luther King Jr. Day may be just another holiday, Penn State students used the day Monday to try to spur change by giving back to the community.
"It is very fitting to honor Dr. King with service activities, given that his life was spent giving service to others," said Dr. Stephen Couch, interim chancellor of Penn State Schuylkill. "I think providing service to others underlines our common mutuality, and it also treats others who may be very different from ourselves as our brothers and sisters, as common members of the human race, people who deserve to be treated with dignity, with respect and with love."
Students from five regional campuses - Penn State Schuylkill, Hazleton, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Lehigh Valley - participated in a breakfast, watched an opening video with clips from King's speeches, heard musical performances, listened to a guest speaker, which included a documentary about the conflict in Africa, and went out to perform community service projects.
Tina Rose, coordinator of student leadership, career development and community service at Penn State Schuylkill, said that the collaborative event, in which about 50 students participated, is held at a different campus every year.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day program was in its fourth year and will be held at Penn State Scranton next year.
Natasha Bliss, of Invisible Children, spoke about how the nonprofit grassroots organization came to be and what it does. She also showed a documentary made by the organization called "Tony," which follows the story of a Ugandan boy who grew up during conflict.
"It's really wonderful for me to be here today, especially for Martin Luther King Day," Bliss said. "For Invisible Children, this is a very revered day. We idolize Martin Luther King because he really set the foundation for our organization."
Invisible Children formed after the spring of 2003 when three young filmmakers - Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole - traveled to Africa in search of a story and stumbled upon Africa's longest-running war, a conflict where children were both the weapons and the victims.
They produced the documentary "Invisible Children: Rough Cut" in 2005, first showing it to their friends and family, but eventually having showings throughout the nation.
It showed the war in northern Uganda. For the past 23 years, the Lord's Resistance Army and the government of Uganda have been waging a war that has left nearly two million innocent civilians caught in the middle.
The documentary depicts night commuting, where children of northern Uganda would be forced to walk miles from their village homes to city streets where it would be safe to sleep and then return home the next day, Bliss said.
Children feared being abducted by the LRA led by terrorist Joseph Kony, because they would either be killed or end up as members of the army.
It also concentrates around "Tony," through the death of his mother, his life during school, his travel to the United States and the loss of his close friend, Nate Henn, who worked with Invisible Children for a year and a half as a "roadie" or staff member, traveling all over the U.S. speaking about the organization's cause. He was killed by an explosion in a July 2010 terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda, that ripped through a rugby field where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the final match of the World Cup.
Bliss said that since "Invisible Children: Rough Cut" was filmed in 2003, night commuting has ended for the children of northern Uganda. She said 25,000 children had been abducted.
In 2006, Invisible Children Inc. became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit, and it's goal is to remove Joseph Kony, so Uganda no longer has to live in devastating civil war conditions and wayward children can receive an education.
The organization was behind the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, which was signed by President Barack Obama on May 24, 2010, legislation aimed at stopping Kony and helping the countless children whose lives are at risk.
In October, Obama authorized the deployment of approximately 100 combat-equipped U.S. troops to central Africa to assisting regional forces "remove from the battlefield" Kony and senior LRA leaders.
"I can't think of any better story that personally is more inspirational and so fitting for MLK Day, as Martin and Invisible Children both caused a huge movement," Rose said, adding, "Change begins with you, no matter how big or small, so we're going to go out there today and cause change."
Rose said Invisible Children will visit Penn State Schuylkill again March 14 as part of the Kony 2012 tour. There will also be a Ugandan speaker.
For the community service projects, students from Penn State Schuylkill went to the Hillside SPCA, Pottsville, and Child Development, Minersville. Students from the Wilkes-Barre campus went to the Orwigsburg food pantry; Scranton campus students went to Rest Haven nursing home, Schuylkill Haven; Lehigh Valley campus student went to the Walk-In Art Center, Schuylkill Haven, and Hazleton campus students went to the Schuylkill YMCA and Historical Society of Schuylkill County, both in Pottsville.
Daniel Wells, 20, of Prince George's County, Md., a sophomore at Penn State Schuylkill, sang and played the piano during the morning events, then volunteered at Hillside SPCA, cleaning out the van used to transport animals.
"It's good to play music that goes with the occasion and you can make people feel a certain type of way with the music that you're playing," Wells said. "I like to do community service. Every little bit helps."