Following in King’s footsteps: Various faith based organizations give back to community on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday

Peninsula Multifaith Coalition volunteers Laura Aron and Daniela Salgado spend the holiday with children at First Step for Families in San Mateo.

More than 300 volunteers organized by the Peninsula Multifaith Coalition dispersed yesterday to several San Mateo County sites to carry on the works of Martin Luther King Jr. by assisting schools, shelters and the elderly.

“This is what he stood for; giving back to the community, people helping each other and making the world a better place. One way we can do this is to give to people who have not. Historically, service work has been connected with Martin Luther King Day,” said Kim Lazarus, co-organizer of the PMC’s volunteering at San Mateo’s First Step for Families shelter and member of the Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

PMC is comprised of 16 different faith-based congregations that share in the values of community outreach and service, Lazarus said. Founded in 2012, members’ beliefs range from Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and other denominations, said PMC representative Karen Wisialowski.

Yesterday volunteers visited InnVision Shelter Network’s First Step for Families, an emergency and temporary housing facility, to spend the afternoon contributing to its day care program by reading, playing, crafting and cooking for residents and their children.

“For this facility, they’re especially in need because they typically have a day care program but, because it’s a holiday, they don’t have the program today. So it’s a perfect opportunity to find a day when they’re really in need for social activities for their kids,” Lazarus said.

Mary Velez is currently living at the shelter with her five children and enjoyed meeting a group of people who wouldn’t visit during a normal day. Velez’s children played, painted and made jewelry with the volunteers during the day off.

“We would be in our rooms basically the rest of the day if we didn’t have the volunteers to help us,” Velez said.

King instilled social service values in youth and teaching one’s own children to respect those of varying religious beliefs and socioeconomic backgrounds is a vital tradition to uphold, said Michele Epstein, a member of the PMC committee and the Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

She began volunteering as a teenager and brought her 16-year-old son Jacob who is already heavily involved in community service programs, Epstein said.

“For me, it was a lifelong thing that started when I was a teenager and also starting to work with other people and learn to respect their choice of worship. To promote peace, we need to understand each other, in our country and overseas,” Epstein said.

Fifteen-year-old Daniela Salgado is a member of the Congregational Church of Belmont and spent her first day volunteering at the shelter by playing with children. She discovered giving back is gratifying.

“It’s actually been really fun. It’s exciting to see, and you get to help these little kids,” Salgado said.

Thirty-nine families currently reside at First Step for Families; but the shelter has served a total of 588 families during the 10 years it’s been located in San Mateo, said Lynelle Bilsey, senior volunteer manager for InnVision.

Having young generations of volunteers visit the shelter and interact with the residents helps bridge the gap between people of different backgrounds, Bilsey said.

“We want them to see children in shelters are no different than the people in their communities and to help break that stereotype of what homelessness is,” Bilsey said.

The shelter has strong community support from the city, county and individuals who make charitable donations, Bilsey said. Yet contributors rarely interact with the residents and donations tend to be briefly dropped off, Bilsey said.

The shelter’s occupants are members of the San Mateo County community whose lives were uprooted due to economic circumstances. Yesterday’s holiday presented an opportunity for volunteers to help bring a sense of normalcy to shelter residents, Bilsey said.

“We want the clients who are living here to feel the same as if they’re living in the community and not feel stigmatized that they’re living in a shelter,” Bilsey said.

Carrying on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy starts with individuals working at home alongside their neighbors, Lazarus said.

“In our [PMC] community here, there’s a real strong push that people feel they should give back,” Lazarus said. “And to be able to do it locally, in your own community, is how to make the best connections.”

For more information about Peninsula Multifaith Coalition visit

For more information about InnVision Shelter Network and First Step for Families visit

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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