Leading With Love

When Marion Sankey and her husband Larry moved to Opelika, she felt the area needed a celebration to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that involved children. Marion founded the Dream Day Foundation, which has honored Dr. King with programs for school children for the past 21 years. The foundation also presents a Dream Achiever Award and awards scholarships to high school seniors at the celebration, as well as helping those in need throughout the year with Dream Acts.

Marion has served as coordinator for all of the 21 celebrations, which are held annually in January. “Our dream took root at Greater Peace Missionary Baptist Church,” says Marion, “and in 2009 moved to the Opelika Center for Performing Arts to accommodate our growth. Hundreds of young people have been the driving force behind this vision. Their desire to understand and appreciate the legacy of Dr. King propelled our event to higher heights each year.”

Every year the celebration has a theme that lined up with Dr. King’s ideas and dreams. The theme for the January 2020 celebration was “Nonviolence Is Love.” “This year’s theme is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s,” says Marion. “Dr. King not only promoted nonviolence, but he lived a life of nonviolence and love. Unfortunately, we are experiencing violence that is not just a result of racial discord, but is also occurring with same race communities. We must elevate Dr. King’s teachings to ensure future generations know love conquers all.

“His basic points include nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.

“With the theme ‘Nonviolence Is Love’,” adds Marion, “we wanted the children to understand that violence is not the solution. Dr. King was all about loving people.” The founder looks back over the past 21 years of the celebration. “When Larry and I first moved to Opelika in 1991,” she says, “there was a Dr. King celebration, but there was nothing in Opelika for young people. We would gather our children and go to the events at various churches in Auburn. The programs were great, but long and not tailored for young people. The children did not understand what was going on.

“It just came to mind that we needed to do something that was local,” she adds. “The first celebration was held at Greater Peace Church in 2000. There were so many who wanted to come that we outgrew the space at Greater Peace and moved to the Opelika Performing Arts Center in 2009.”

Marion grew up in Greer, S.C., outside Greenville. When she was in the fourth grade, her father passed away, leaving seven children for her mother to raise. Education was important to the family. Five of the seven children attended college. Marion’s grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Several members of her family were schoolteachers. While she thought about being a nurse, Marion decided to be a teacher since she was inspired by her elementary teachers and teachers in her family.

After graduating from Winthrop College, she taught fourth grade for a year in Rockingham, N.C. When Marion and Larry married in 1979, he was transferred to Dothan to open the Michelin plant there. Marion taught school in Dothan for 12 years.

The Sankeys moved to Opelika in 1991 when Michelin purchased Uniroyal. Marion started teaching at Carver and then worked at West Forest as a teacher for the gifted and talented. After 15 years, she retired from Opelika City Schools in 2006.

Marion went to work in LaGrange, Ga., where she held several positions in the Troup County System as teacher, Title I specialist, instructional specialist and reading teacher. She became a reading specialist for third, fourth and fifth grades in the Read 180 program. Marion became the National Teacher of the Year in the program in 2018. She was honored in Orlando, Fla. Marion retired in May last year after working 13 years in LaGrange and a total of 40 years as an educator.

“I tell people it is God’s plan,” says Marion. “You retire from one career, but then you have to serve other people. I love serving people in my church and community, especially the children, in any way I can.”

They also enjoy helping with their grand- children. The Sankeys have four children. Their oldest son, Jamaal, and his wife, LaShunda, live in Opelika and have two children, Jordan (Piper), 13, and C.J., 11. Their youngest son, Darren, and his wife, Andrea, have a daughter, Sydney Ann, 2, and
they reside in Houston, Texas. Youngest daughter, Mariah, also resides in Houston, while the oldest daughter, Ashley, lives in New Orleans, LA.

Plans are underway for the 22nd MLK Dream Day Celebration scheduled for Jan. 18, 2021. The location and program will be announced later, depending on Covid-19. They will name the 2021 Dream Achiever recipient and award scholarships.

“I appreciate the support I have gotten from the community over the years,” expresses Marion. “We want to continue to promote the peace and love that Dr. King stood for in songs, poems and drama presented by school children. “My favorite Dr. King’s quote is ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’”