Correction to This Article
Previous versions of this article incorrectly stated the origin of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The federal agency was created in 1993 to oversee several volunteer programs; in 1994, Congress charged it with promoting the Martin Luther King holiday as a National Day of Service. This version has been corrected.

For King Holiday, Calling All Volunteers

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell held a press conference today to announce "Renew America Together," a service initiative that will take place Jan. 19 to celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Nikita Stewart and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 10, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama is urging the nation to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as it was originally intended: as a national day of service.

With the holiday falling the day before his Jan. 20 inauguration, Obama is seeking widespread volunteer initiatives across the country, such as serving meals to the homeless, cleaning schools and neighborhoods, or helping disadvantaged youths and the elderly.

Colin L. Powell, an honorary chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, announced the "Renew America Together" initiative yesterday. He said he hopes the enthusiasm surrounding Obama's election victory will inspire Americans to finally meet the holiday's promise.

The federal holiday, first observed 23 years ago, has never settled into American traditions, such as parades on the Fourth of July or family dinners on Thanksgiving. The Corporation for National and Community Service, was created in 1993 to oversee several volunteer programs and, in 1994, Congress charged it with promoting the Martin Luther King holiday as a National Day of Service. But the service day -- tied to King's birthday, Jan. 15, and inspired by his words that "everybody can be great because anybody can serve" -- never quite caught on.

Obama, who will become the nation's first African American president, plans to take part in Washington area activities along with his family, although details were not announced. Powell, who made history himself as the first African American secretary of state, has long promoted volunteerism.

"Inaugurations are always a new start," Powell said. "Inaugurations are a time for new leadership to come in and charge the nation to deal with the problems that we have."

The Corporation for National and Community Service, is "thrilled with the extraordinary high level of attention the incoming president is giving this," spokesman Sandy Scott said.

Last year, the agency recorded about 500,000 volunteers participating in roughly 5,000 service projects on King Day, Scott said in an interview. "This year will be the largest ever, fueled by President-elect Barack Obama's call to service. . . . The number of volunteers will be in the millions," he said.

Organizers are hoping that those who volunteer will stick with it year-round.

"Mentor at a school. Go to a first-grade class and read," Powell said. "Go to a place where older people need to have company, need to have people visit with them."

The call is similar to that given by other presidents, from John F. Kennedy with the Peace Corps, to George H.W. Bush with the Points of Light, to Bill Clinton with AmeriCorps.

Like Obama's presidential campaign, the current effort has a modern, Internet-driven twist.

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