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MLK celebration needs leadership in order to survive

Ron Walker leads a rendition of
Ron Walker leads a rendition of 'We Shall Overcome' during last year's Martin Luther King Celebration at Decatur High School in Federal Way.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

Federal Way's long-standing Martin Luther King celebration is in desperate need of fresh leadership.

The event launched in 1993. Its mission is to honor community, diversity and Dr. King. For the past 10 years, resident Ron Walker spearheaded most of the organizational work leading up to the ceremony. Walker stepped down from his position with the MLK Celebration Committee to pursue other passions after this year's January gathering. His absence, and dwindling funding for the MLK activities, have led to a call for volunteers who are up for a challenge.

The MLK celebration started humbly, city council member Jeanne Burbidge said. Burbidge and council member Mike Park both served as volunteers on the MLK Celebration Committee in its early years.

Since then, the occasion has grown to include several large and symbolic events leading up to the main attraction. In 2000, the Community Flame of Federal Way was added. In 2004, the Common Thread of Federal Way, where residents can attach customized cards depicting their dreams for the city, was started. In 2005, a youth leadership summit was formed. Walker assures the summit will continue this year, regardless of the direction a future MLK committee may take.

Students compete in a scholarship competition. Performance groups abound. A community service project is a staple and a food drive is common place.

"The complexity of it, over time, has grown to make it a production instead of a little tiny show," Walker said.

Traditionally, funding and resources for the activities have come from local businesses, the city's Diversity Commission, the school district and fundraising efforts. The student summit costs $4,000. Student scholarships — to the tune of $5,000 — are awarded. The main ceremony, including arts groups and speakers, costs $3,000, according to a July 14 Parks, Recreation, Human Services and Public Safety (PRHSPS) council committee meeting summary found on the city's Web site.

In the past, Walker organized the celebration with the help of a moderate group of volunteers known as the MLK Celebration Committee. Planning would begin in late August for the January attraction, he said.

"It's a huge undertaking," Walker said. "There's just so many different pieces that have to come together."

The committee typically requests $1,500 from the Diversity Commission for the proceedings. Local businesses play a large role in funding the activities as well. For the past decade, Weyerhaeuser has offered $1,000 annually, Walker said. However, the timber company communicated this year it can no longer afford to contribute funding in coming years, Walker said.

"After 10 years of doing it, some of the money has dried up a little bit," he said.

Even so, the city's management is not ready to let the event fade away. They are equally not equipped to dedicate staff to plan it. The celebration is one of the city's largest historical get-togethers, council member Jim Ferrell said during the PRHSPS meeting. Letting it cease to exist because of a lack of volunteers to coordinate the celebration is unimaginable, he said.

Future MLK celebrations will remain community oriented, but they need not be as large and time consuming as past occurrences, city spokeswoman Linda Farmer said. The city is open to the event's expansion or reduction, and expects the MLK Celebration Committee to continue ownership of the affair, she said.

"We really want to leave that up to the people who want to volunteer for the (MLK) committee," she said. "We are looking for revival and somebody to really pick up the ball and run with this."

The MLK committee works closely with the Diversity Committee. City staff hope to attract several volunteers to begin organizing Federal Way's 2010 Martin Luther King Celebration as soon as possible. Though Sept. 4 is not the deadline for stepping forward, anyone that volunteers before this date will have the opportunity to attend the Diversity Commission meeting on Sept. 9 and learn more.

Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more may contact Lynnette Hynden at lynnette.hynden@cityoffederalway.com or (253) 835-2650.

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