Jan 16
January 16, 2017

Honoring the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr: Three Leaders Discuss the Benefits of Giving Back



Today, people across the United States are recognizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service by giving back — cleaning up blighted neighborhoods, delivering meals to the homeless, putting smiles on children’s faces, and participating in service projects that make our communities, and our country, stronger. 
 The great thing about community service is that the more you do it, the better the results — for society and for yourself. A growing body of research shows that giving back on a regular basis comes with mental and physical benefits, including lower rates of depression and hypertension. Furthermore, community service can be good for your career by increasing your skills, confidence, inspiration and connections for your next job. 
 There are many inspiring examples of the link between community service and career development among alumni of the Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program. The PLS program launched by four U.S. presidential centers in 2014 aims to help a diverse group of leaders strengthen their skills and capacity to effect positive change in their communities. PLS alumni — whose backgrounds include jobs in the business, public service, nonprofit, and military sectors — are united by a desire to drive solutions-oriented action.

Here are the stories and words of wisdom from three graduates whose lives and careers were strengthened by their efforts to improve the world around them.

Melva Williams: Strengthening the Future for Historically Black Colleges and Universities

How She Got Involved with Community Service

In his memoir, newspaper publisher Harry D. Strunk wrote “Service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy in this world.” It’s a principle that Melva lives by, which has driven her to help build two schools in Shreveport, and serve on several nonprofit boards in the arts, film, elderly affairs, and education.

“From my service, I have been able to see changes in state legislation that impact the lives of children for the better,” she said. “And I’ve observed enhancements in community support for causes such as the council on aging and our local film center. I think that my advocacy has helped provide a better understanding of issues and plights that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.”

The Role of Service in Her Work

Melva points out that service on community projects and nonprofit boards has expanded her network and strengthened her connections with other leaders.

“Those strong networks have helped me grow and opened up opportunities that have been helpful to my career,” said Melva, who serves as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Southern University at Shreveport

Melva also co-founded the Higher Education Leadership Foundation (HELF), which aims to prepare the next generation of senior administrators at historically black colleges and universities to lead transformation and secure the futures of their schools.

“I was able to utilize my contacts through other community service organizations to leverage support to enhance the goals of HELF,” she said.

Her Advice for Other Professionals

Melva reminds professionals to make sure that they’re ultimately giving back out of altruism and empathy for other people’s plights.

“When you do service well and for the right reasons, the things achieved in the community and in your career can intertwine,” she said. “Service can create social good while helping you achieve professional goals along the way.”

Shelley McKechnie Cryan: Educating Female Entrepreneurs

How She Got Involved with Community Service

Seven years ago, Shelley was asked to donate to Starfish International, a nonprofit that educates teen girls in West Africa. But after learning more about the challenges there, she wanted to do more than write a check.

“As a business owner, I knew the power of entrepreneurship. I started thinking about how I could develop a curriculum to share that,” Shelley said. “Sitting at my kitchen table back then, I could see clearly the steps in a multiyear project.”

Shelley has since been to The Gambia multiple times to teach girls how to run portrait and event photography businesses. The girls’ businesses are thriving, high school graduation rates have soared, and the local community sees directly the value of educating girls. A nonprofit Shelley runs, Humanity Now, supports this and other projects connecting schoolchildren around the world with resources and each other.

The Role of Service in Her Work

Shelley finds that her community service work helps her put professional challenges in perspective, making her more effective on the job.

“A tight deadline for a complex work project — where I have electricity, computers, and phones — is rarely as challenging or as high-stakes as making sure at-risk teen girls have the skills they need to direct their own life,” she said. “It’s made me much more calm and focused under pressure.”

Her Advice for Other Professionals

Shelley believes that when you’re on the right path personally, your career tends to follow. For Shelley, that includes serving others.

“Service is a core part of trying to earn my place in the world, and trying to become a better friend, mom, daughter, sister, colleague, and neighbor,” she said. “Really, it’s just dumb luck that I was born in a country full of opportunity and could get a good education. It’s a no-brainer that I should share some of that luck with others. Yet here’s the kicker — what I gain by serving far surpasses any benefit I might deliver. It brings me perspective. It brings me confidence to handle challenges. It brings me joy. I’d like to think I’m assisting others, but on balance it’s the other way around.”

Mark Dalsing: Serving the Community in and out of Uniform

How He Got Involved with Community Service

As the Chief of Police for the Dubuque, Iowa Police Department, Mark has seen people fall through the cracks. He’s also observed gaps in available services for people in need. As a result, he makes participating in community service a priority.

Over the years, Mark’s participation in community service has ranged from jumping into the Mississippi River to support Special Olympics every winter for the past decade to participating in an annual chef auction to support the local occupational safety training center. He’s even served as a fashion model to raise funds for a domestic violence shelter.

“After 27 years as a police officer I have seen the worst of people and the best of people,” Mark said. “It can be a physically and emotionally draining career if you focus on the negatives, but I have chosen to focus on the positives, which includes the community partners working to fill gaps. In the end, community services make my professional job easier, and personally makes my community better.”

The Role of Service in His Work

By giving back, Mark has shown his colleagues that he is willing to go the extra mile.

“In the early stages of my career, service was just something I did because it was what I felt I should do,” he said. “As I got promoted up the ladder, I was told that my community involvement was viewed in a positive light during the promotional process, because it showed my commitment to community extends beyond my work hours.”

Mark has also made gains making community service part of the culture in his police department. He believes that the benefits of service are contagious.

“Every year I do an in-service training block for my entire staff, and every year volunteerism is promoted and recommended,” he said. “Thankfully my team is listening and responding more and more each year. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I know those that are stepping up and volunteering will be my future department leaders.”

His Advice for Other Professionals

Mark believes that demonstrating a history of community service can set you apart in your career — and it’s never too early to get started.

“I am the hiring authority for my agency and whenever I talk to college students, I use an analogy,” he said. “Imagine I have two applications in front of me: Applicant #1 is a 4.0 GPA honor student but has little else on the resume besides school, and Applicant #2 only has a 2.5 GPA but had a full resume to include a history of volunteerism. I know Applicant #2 is going to rise to the top through the process.”

To Learn more about the PLS program, visit