CAPITAL CULTURE: Obamas focuses spotlight on community service work; volunteerism on the rise

By Ann Sanner, AP
Monday, January 18, 2010

CAPITAL CULTURE: Obama cites value of volunteerism

WASHINGTON — A retired teacher went back to a classroom in need. A barber is giving time to a child whose first years remind him of his own. A college graduate decided to help kids learn instead of helping investors on Wall Street.

When President Barack Obama called for Americans to volunteer, all three listened.

Loretta Martin, 61, a retired elementary teacher from Beachwood, Ohio, said Obama motivated her when he said it doesn’t take much time to make a difference. “He really pushes it and I hear it all the time now,” she said.

Martin, who volunteered for Obama’s presidential campaign, started in October tutoring first-graders for about 15 hours a week through Experience Corps. The nonprofit organization places people age 55 and older into elementary schools to help students with reading and writing.

“I knew that I had the skills to help and I wanted to use those skills,” said Martin, who’s worked as a literacy coach. “It’s really rewarding to see what a little bit of time can make in the lives of kids — just a little bit of attention makes a big difference.”

Since taking office in January 2009, Obama has made it a priority to bolster national service programs. Both he and first lady Michelle Obama have lectured at length on the topic, challenging others to donate their time to causes in their neighborhoods as a way to help where government alone cannot.

“We need your service right now, at this moment in history,” Obama said in April, when he signed into law a $5.7 billion bill to expand national service programs such as AmeriCorps. “I’m not going to tell you what your role should be. That’s for you to discover. But I’m asking you to stand up and play your part.”

The Obamas practice what they preach. They’ve planted trees, packed backpacks for the military and passed out Thanksgiving favorites at a food pantry. The president started “United We Serve,” a nationwide service initiative to get people involved in volunteering.

The first family on Monday served lunch to the needy at a Washington social services organization in observance of the federal holiday commemorating the birth of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama has drawn attention to community service and started a dialogue about how to help, according to organizers and nonprofit groups.

Anecdotally, they hear of people who’ve joined their causes because of the president. But they say it’s hard to pinpoint whether service overall is up because of his call for action. High unemployment and an already eager-to-serve generation of young people also have spurred interest in lending a hand.

“He has brought a spotlight to the grass-roots efforts that have really been there for some time and now are getting traction because of his impetus,” said Experience Corps’ chief executive, Lester Strong.

“I think we have yet to see what the full effect will be,” Strong said.

More people have become interested in the last year, Strong said, though the number of participants has remained about the same because of funding. In Baltimore, a couple dozen people are already on the group’s waiting list for next fall.

Online applications to AmeriCorps more than doubled last year, reaching the highest in the program’s history, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps. Almost 247,000 people applied in 2009, compared with 91,000 in 2008. The Clinton-era program has 75,000 enrollees who clean parks and build homes, among other tasks.

Some nonprofit groups have seen an increase in applicants since Obama took office. City Year, a program in which young adults serve as tutors and mentors to kids for a year, had a record number of applicants for the 2009 school year — nearly 7,000 for 1,550 positions. Habitat for Humanity’s alternative school break program had at least an 8 percent increase in its summer participants. Big Brothers Big Sisters said it’s had a slight increase in the number of black men enrolling at affiliates.

Micheal Johnson, 38, joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in October after a group of black fraternity members recruited for the program at his barber shop in Lewisville, Texas.

Raised by a single mom, Johnson had a Big Brother from third grade until he graduated from high school. With three kids of his own, he said he couldn’t keep waiting until it was the right moment in his life to help another child. Now he mentors a 10-year-old boy.

“You know, I had to see a man to be a man,” Johnson said. “I see myself in my little brother. It’s like the same stuff that he was struggling in, I was struggling in, too.”

Patrick Meyers, 22, of Ridgewood, N.J., said he was inspired by how the Obamas served their Chicago hometown.

In his 20s, the president worked as a community organizer on the city’s South Side. Michelle Obama was the founding executive director of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps community service program that trained young people for jobs in the nonprofit world.

“I thought about the community that I grew up in and what kind of impact I had so far, and it was minimal,” Meyers said. “I thought that I needed to do more and give back.”

Meyers earned a bachelor’s degree in finance, with a minor in economics in last May from the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa. He applied for City Year in Miami right before graduation. When he started college, he said he thought he’d get a job as an entry level analyst at an investment bank on Wall Street. Now, he helps students with math problems and spends four days a week working at an after-school program.

Obama is not the first president to push national service.

President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps. President Richard Nixon established a National Volunteer Week. President George H.W. Bush created the Daily Point of Light Award to honor volunteers.

“This isn’t about one president,” said Michael Brown, chief executive and co-founder of the nonprofit City Year, based in Boston. “It’s about the American presidency. It’s part of the role of the American president to call on people to serve.”

On the Net:

Habitat for Humanity:

Big Brothers Big Sisters:

City Year:


Government’s volunteer site:

Experience Corps:

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