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Thousands Heed the Call To Serve

President-elect Barack Obama is pushing for commitments to public service, visiting an emergency homeless shelter for teenagers in the nation's capital. Video by AP

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By Nikita Stewart and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hundreds of thousands of volunteers in the Washington region and throughout the country turned out to do good works for their communities yesterday, an overwhelming response to President-elect Barack Obama's call for a day of public service in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

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They crowded into soup kitchens to feed the homeless, flooded school hallways to paint walls and flocked to neighborhood parks to pick up trash in what may have been the largest day of national service ever. It was propelled by the same kind of millions-strong network of e-mail and text messages that marked Obama's presidential campaign.

The impact was particularly strong in Washington, bolstered by the thousands of people who arrived in recent days to take part in the inauguration and who eagerly joined the area's community service activities.

"We don't want to just use it to win elections," Obama said yesterday while painting at Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a homeless shelter for teens in Northeast. "We want to use it to rebuild America."

The definition of service included preparing taxes, giving massages, collecting bicycles to send to Africa and cleaning children's teeth. The good deeds dotted the region, from a school supply drive in a Bethesda living room to the makeover of a holding room for foster children in Arlington County.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee reported that volunteers had signed up to fan out for 12,100 events around the country, more than double the 5,000 projects recorded last year by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. Philadelphia had 65,000 people participating in about 900 projects, according to Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.

About 12,000 people filled RFK Stadium in the District, where Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were among the volunteers who put together more than 85,000 care packages for the troops.

"I never volunteered on Martin Luther King's birthday before," said Mary Rogers, 43, a Realtor who grew up in Southeast. "But it was really nice. People came from all over -- from London, from all walks of life, all over the U.S. are here. And everyone had one goal in mind, to see what we need to do to push this nation forward."

The celebration of the King holiday, first observed 23 years ago, is often recognized through tributes to the slain civil rights leader, but not with an established ritual for the day. In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a national day of service.

Denise Gibson and Erin and Karen Wahlberg said they had no idea that volunteerism was one of the purposes of the King holiday -- until the Obama e-mails started coming.

"We had decided that this was a way to be a part of the inauguration," said Gibson, 41. "We don't have tickets to anything. We're not going to any balls."

They looked for a service project by logging on to the USAService.org Web site and entering the Zip code of their hotel on Connecticut Avenue. They settled on the Loaves and Fishes Meal Program at St. Stephens and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights, where about 200 men were going to feast on baked chicken, collard greens, baked beans and cookies.

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