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.
Renew America Together is using technology to build a network of once-isolated volunteers. Its Web site, USAService.org, can link a potential community helper with a winter coat drive or a blood bank.
Buffy Wicks, director of Renew America Together, who worked as state director for the Obama campaign in Missouri, said in an interview that the inaugural committee wanted to apply what worked on the trail to volunteerism.
"What this is, essentially, is something along the lines of a Craigslist," said Linda Douglass, chief spokeswoman for the inaugural committee. "It's a hub where we can connect people who are offering opportunities for service, ideas for service and people who want to serve."
Renew America Together piggybacked on what was already happening, collecting information about 5,000 events across the country to put on the Web site. "I have no doubt that we will surpass that," Wicks said. "The Web site is certainly going off the charts right now."
At a news conference, Powell explained that people can visit the site and add events or ideas.
The meaning of "serve" appears to be relative: Most events are the traditional labor- and donation-oriented projects, but others are a bit different.
In Tempe, Ariz., for instance, the Center for Advanced Natural Healing is offering complimentary 90-minute massages; in Chicago, the Bethel Cultural Arts Center is promoting a "Relax, Relate, Rejuvenate" event that focuses on eliminating stress through "massages, yoga, spoken word, nutrition counseling."
Organizers of the events said that they are getting calls from people who found their causes on the USA Service site.
In Waco, the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition is planting vegetable gardens at a dozen schools and other sites. Matt Hess, education director for World Hunger Relief, which is part of the coalition, said the aim is to get students to eat more nutritious foods. After vegetables ripen, they will be cooked and served to the students and sent home to low-income families.
Hess, who said the group hopes to find 1,000 volunteers, is pleased that he has received 50 calls from people who found his event on the USA Service site. One of those who called was Alisa Petree, a Waco mother of three who said she signed up with her 11-year-old daughter, Kristen, to plant at an elementary school.
A Democrat in the heart of Red America -- the event is the closest service day project to George W. Bush's Crawford ranch -- Petree said she thinks the Web site is a good way to help people get involved.
"The project was close and easy to access," she said. "The Web site is a great opportunity for people to see what's available in the community."
Organizers are counting on thousands of inaugural visitors to fan out and join projects in the District. The Web site is prominently promoting an event at the Aquatic Resources Education Center in Anacostia Park where students will test water quality, clean up trash and plant 44 trees. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) is scheduled to attend.
In Arizona, Hands On Greater Phoenix is putting on a series of events, including neighborhood cleanups, housing renovations in poorer communities and orange harvesting for a food bank. The group is seeking 750 volunteers, said Alan Dicker, communications coordinator.
"It's great that we have someone in the White House who is actually promoting that," Dicker said of community service. "He's going out of his way to promote giving back to the community."
Asked whether Obama's focus on service would help increase the volunteer base, Dicker said: "At least for now. I don't know about the long run, but this galvanizes people, especially around something like MLK Day, and brings in new volunteers."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.