On April 25 annually, thousands of people attend RSA services to commemorate Anzac Day - a time-honoured tradition that was first observed 100 years ago in 1916.

The dawn or morning services remember the Anzacs and veterans who have served New Zealand and Australia in war, conflict and peace-keeping situations. It's one of the days in the national calendar when a large number of people pause, stand together and take time to reflect on our past.

In 2012, the University of Canterbury's Student Volunteer Army (SVA) was honoured to receive the Anzac of the Year Award by the RSA. At that time, the SVA was challenged by the Governor-General, Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae, to consider how to continue the volunteer movement outside a time of disaster or crisis. As a team, we have since sought to cherish that spirit by finding a practical way to further the RSA values of compassion, comradeship, commitment and courage.

In 1994, the United States Government designated Martin Luther King, Jr Day as the first and only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. Every year since, thousands of Americans have marked the nation's largest day of civic engagement through volunteer service under the notion of "a day on, not a day off".


Drawing from this concept and others, the University of Canterbury, the SVA, and RSA have partnered together to launch Serve for New Zealand, where people are invited to do a meaningful act of service or neighbourly activity on, or around, Anzac Day 2016.

So far more than 4000 people, including ministers and members of Parliament, schools, students, businesses, families and individuals have embraced the idea and pledged at least an hour of their time. Serve for New Zealand received international exposure this week with His Royal Highness Prince Harry publicly supporting it, stating:

"This initiative is a way for Kiwis to remember the service of others in the past, and to continue that tradition of generosity and sacrifice in a practical way. I would like to congratulate those who have already pledged their time, and encourage others to do the same."

In the future, we are interested in exploring how this concept and notion of service could be applied to other days of national significance, such as the way in which we commemorate and reflect on Suffrage Day and Parihaka Day.

Feedback has taught us that service days need to be less about volunteering and more of an invitation to make a thoughtful contribution to something or someone you care about. We hope the Serve for New Zealand initiative can build over time to shine a light on important days in our country's history and to invite people to find greater meaning in them through simple acts of service.

While reactions to a disaster often demonstrate the best of humanity - as we saw following the 2011 earthquake when 11,000 people took to the streets of Christchurch to clean up the city as part of the SVA - we also know community resilience can be increased by mobilising people to do small but meaningful acts of local service.

This can have a significant impact on community connectedness, helping to alleviate social isolation, build empathy toward others and increase the understanding of our history.

When the SVA was first established, the teams were relentlessly focused on shifting thousands of tonnes of silt.

However, it was soon realised that the importance of our service wasn't in the physical work, but in being there for others by listening to and learning from them.

We hope the Serve for New Zealand initiative can help embed these values in our communities with people from all walks of life working alongside each other. Service is a great leveller and it's not just about going to clean up a park; it is an act of thoughtful contribution that builds empathy and makes this country the great place that it is.

- Co-authored by Sam Johnson, Student Volunteer Army (SVA) founder and chair, and Billy O'Steen, associate professor of community engagement at the University of Canterbury.