• David Wolfe Bender

An Indianapolis Organization is Trying to Restore the Meaning of MLK Day

Martin Luther King Day is an annual national holiday, leading many companies, businesses, and organizations across the country to give their employees a day off of work. But one Indianapolis-based organization decided to do things a little differently: they asked their employees to volunteer their time.

The Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA) was founded as a study abroad provider in partnership with Butler University in 1988. Since then, they’ve established as an independent entity and developed into one of the largest not-for-profit study abroad organizations. Each year, on Martin Luther King Day, they sponsor a program where employees give back to the communities they serve.

“So much of his teachings were around being in service to others [and] around uplifting the community," Human Resources Director Jessica Auxier, who organized the day of service, said. “It’s really along those lines that we went with a day of service.”

IFSA’s employees said that they really enjoyed the experience and that it really amplified the importance of the day.

“I think it’s important. The fact that IFSA lets us take this day shows the importance of giving back within your community,” Kira Rysiewicz, a field director for IFSA, said. “That was a big part of Martin Luther King’s legacy. Having the time to set aside to focus on that message, especially in our political climate, is really important right now.”

This year, due to the pandemic, each employee selected a remote service opportunity. Rysiewicz put together hygiene kits for a nonprofit that works with unhoused veterans. DyNishia Miller, an assistant field director, chose an opportunity that aligned directly with King’s message.

“They have anti-slavery manuscripts that you can help transcribe,” Miller said. “So that’s what I’m doing. This year reinforced the importance of this day. That’s why I chose the anti-slavery manuscripts. The anti-slavery activity is something that really speaks to me. Anything that can help progress our knowledge is something that I obviously value.”

This year, COVID-19 forced the day of service to move to a virtual format. However, the flexibility of virtual planning allowed the organization to expand their day of service internationally, allowing all of their global partners to participate. IFSA has programs in 19 countries. The virtual format changed how the day of service works for the organization.

“I can just do things on my computer,” Miller said. “When we were doing this in person, it was more of a team building activity too. Getting that time to volunteer with your team allowed you to get to know people even better. That’s what's different this year.”

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year and the Storming of the Capitol riots just weeks ago, the day took on a new meaning.

“I wanted to highlight that Martin Luther King wasn’t always loved and respected in the way that we look upon it now,” Rysiewicz said. “I think the best way to honor that and push his message forward is to support the organizations who are doing that great work today like Black Lives Matter.”