Smith's mom is a superintendent in the Department of Sanitation; the 14-year-old East New York resident noted that King was killed after traveling to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking sanitation workers.
“I believe that without him my mother wouldn't have a job,” said Smith, an eighth grade student at J.H.S. 292 on Vermont Street, who called King one of her role models, along with President Barack Obama, the country's first African-American president.
The civil rights leader “opened our eyes that change will come,” Smith said in opening remarks at I.S. 292's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “Obama is our living proof.”
The ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the holiday, which was created as a national day of service, was spearheaded by City Year New York, an organization affiliated with AmeriCorps that places volunteers in schools with high dropout rates.
The non-profit organized over 1,200 volunteers to spend the day doing community service projects in four city schools, including nearby Thomas Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania Avenue.
At J.H.S. 292, students and volunteers teamed up to paint murals in the school's hallways.
Celine Waurin, a City Year member, said she decided to join the year-long program after graduating from college to give back before going into the education field full-time. “When you're young and don't have any obligations, it's just amazing to give a year of service,” Waurin said.
Speakers at the ceremony urged others to become involved.
“Service isn't about a quick, one-day, feel-good event,” said Nicole Gallant, a Harlem educator. “It's about commitment.”