Most people living on Aquidneck Island know about the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, or at least in part. After all, next year will mark its 100 year anniversary. Alyson Novick is the director of development of the organization, which is located on Broadway in Newport, Rhode Island, but serves as far away as Tiverton and Jamestown.
Novick is a true Aquidneck Islander. No one could dare call her a “carpet bagger” as people who are not from the island are so “lovingly” called.
“That is part of why I work here, because this community matters so much to me,” Novick says. “These people are my neighbors, my family, my friends.” She continued.
This will be her 11th year working at MLK. An organization that she joined at a point when there were doubts that it could continue financially.
Novick says that for many Newport isn’t an easy place to live. Despite all the glitz and glamor that is presented to the world, there is a whole other reality to life on Aquidneck Island. “Life for many people here is very hard. It doesn’t need to be that hard.” She says.
Novick says that she often asks people “What is the first thing you think about when you think about Newport?” They will often talk about arts, culture, beauty and mansions. She will then ask them “When you drive into Newport and look to the left, what do you see?”
The divide between rich and poor is real on the island and Novick worries about that gap on a daily basis, especially as it continues to widen. And COVID-19 only made it worse for many.
Novick says that bad stuff happening in our lives is inevitable, that’s why places like the MLK Center and Memorial Funeral Home exist. For people that seek out the help of the MLK Center, it is because they don’t have the family and financial resources needed to get through those bad times.
“There just isn’t a support system in many people’s lives,” she says. But none of this is possible without the support of those who have the means to contribute, whether volunteering (there are 700+ volunteers currently) or providing funding to the food, community and education programs that MLK offers. The non-profit receives relatively little funding on a municipal level, so it is quite literally a community effort to keep everything going. “We need people to support us,” she says.
And a lot of people did step up and help when the pandemic started. MLK stayed open throughout and was able to work with McGrath Clambakes, who, thanks to a PPP loan, were able to keep on staff who made food that MLK distributed to people in need.
When the food pantry couldn’t be open due to the pandemic, people could write down what they needed and the MLK volunteers would organize bags and deliver goods to nursing homes and houses, often to places hardest hit by COVID-19.
In 2020, the MLK Center served nearly 5,000 people, made over 1000 food deliveries, served nearly 11,000 breakfasts and provided more education scholarships than ever before.
MLK’s community programs provided cooking and wellness classes, distributed books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program and 820 children received gifts through the nonprofit’s Santa’s Workshop event.
Novick says Memorial Funeral Home’s relationship with MLK, “predates our database, so before 2007.” For years now, Kurt Edenbach, co-owner of Memorial Funeral Home, has dressed up like Buddy from the movie “Elf” at the annual Jane Pickens showing of the movie. The event raises awareness for MLK, as well as brings in much needed food and money donations during the holiday time.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the event was cancelled in 2020, but it is back on the books for this year and we know that Edenbach could not be more excited to reprise his role as Buddy. This year, the event will take place at Jane Pickens Film + Event Center on Washington Square in Newport on December 12th at 1:30pm.
“These connections are important,” say Novick. “We need that” She continued.
Novick says that the inter-connectedness of the Aquidneck Island community is what keeps it all going. In this case, the “island mentality” helps create a close community where people help each other.
Despite the issues facing the island, such as the lack of affordable housing, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and climate change, Novick continues to have faith in the community and their ability to help, after all, if it wasn’t for the generosity of each and every individual, there would be no Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center.
Like she says, “people want to help, MLK will be the place that will help and that we will never stop.”
If you are interested in donating to MLK or volunteering, please go to www.mlkccenter.org.