President Obama rolled up the sleeves on his chambray shirt to work alongside his wife, Michelle, to spruce up a District elementary school Saturday, kicking off inauguration weekend with a national day of volunteering.
As they did four years ago, the Obamas called for Americans to join in the day of service traditionally associated with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as part of the inaugural festivities. This year, the King holiday falls on Monday, the same day as the president’s ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol.
Thousands participated in volunteer events in all 50 states Saturday — feeding the hungry, planting trees and, in coastal New York and New Jersey, clearing debris and repairing dunes left after Hurricane Sandy.
The Obamas, Vice President Biden and their families and members of the Cabinet fanned out to service events across the Washington area, with the Obamas wielding paintbrushes to stain a shelf at Burrville Elementary School in Northeast.
The president praised the importance of adults teaching children to give back, quoted King’s famous “drum major” speech and spoke of the energy of the next generation of volunteers.
“This is really what America is about. This is what we celebrate,” Obama said. “This inauguration . . . should also be an affirmation that we’re all in this together and that we’ve got to look out for each other.”
Elsewhere in the region, hundreds of people bundled in coats and hats attended the inauguration’s signature service event, a large fair on the Mall where celebrities including Chelsea Clinton and Eva Longoria appeared and attendees wandered among booths promoting volunteer opportunities with Bread for the City, the American Red Cross, Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, the Catholic Volunteer Network and others.
Some tapped on laptops at kiosks, pledging a certain number of community service hours, part of the administration’s hope that people will continue to serve after this one high-profile day. The Presidential Inaugural Committee said that 13,000 people attended the fair and that people across the country had pledged more than 1 million hours of service across their communities.
“This is awesome!” said Debra Upshaw, 57, of Chicago as she unfurled a blanket from an organization that supports black women and families. “If we could get 10 percent of the people that sign up” to follow through and volunteer, it would be wonderful, she said. “People are so needed.”
Many of those who came waited in long lines to perform actual service, making cards and bookplates for needy children. Some of those eager to help had to find different options because their first choices were clogged with volunteers.
More than 1 million people across the country participated in the day of service for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that promotes volunteerism. Many more came the next day to hear the president stand on the Capitol steps and issue a stirring call to service: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
But those heady moments of hope and promise soon met harsh reality.
In the following days, a bipartisan Congress quickly passed a landmark $6 billion package to expand national service and volunteer programs. But in the years since, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act has become a victim of budget wrangling and cuts in a deeply divided Congress, with some conservative Republicans vehemently opposed to it.
The Corporation for National and Community Service’s budget has been cut by $100 million; some in Congress want to eliminate it altogether. Plans to expand the number of AmeriCorps volunteers to 140,000 by 2012 evaporated; the service corps launched in the Clinton era now has just about 82,500 slots, even though more than a half million applied last year.
“People pushing for national service to expand thought that this was going to be a golden era,” said Suzanne Perry, senior editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “But now they’re resigned to just fighting to ensure that national service isn’t totally eviscerated. . . . Instead of gearing up for the big expansion, they’re basically just trying to preserve what’s there and make sure there aren’t any future cuts.”
Meanwhile, the nation’s civic health suffered a bit of malaise, too. Volunteers are at a five-year high — about 64 million at last tally — but that is still below the 65 million who volunteered in 2005, ranks that swelled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Americans donated nearly $300 billion to charity last year, a number that has also grown but not returned to pre-recession highs, according to Giving USA, the annual report on charitable giving by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Average citizens who volunteered in the Washington area Saturday said they appreciated the Obamas’ commitment to service but had mixed feelings on whether the energy around volunteerism sparked by the youthful president in 2008 and 2009 endured.
About 30 volunteers folded clothes and sorted donated furniture at a Mission of Love Charities warehouse in Capitol Heights as a rehearsing church choir serenaded them.
Sharon Billings, 61, of Hyattsville, who lost her job as a legislative aide but continues to volunteer with her church, praised Obama. “Someone in his position, even though it’s a photo op or whatever, he shows it’s not beneath him to do,” Billings said of Obama’s Saturday trip to the elementary school. But she worried that some may still be apathetic.
“The younger generation wants to do nothing. We African Americans are creating a generation of elitism, we give our kids everything,” Billings said. “They’re not inspired unless they’re actually connected to something specific, like a church.”
Douglas Edwards, the Mission of Love founder, said that while many of those he knows are proud of Obama, he believes the president hasn’t boosted a culture of service in the past four years. He put blame on other politicians who block the president’s agenda and said he believes that the poor are still neglected by many elected officials, including the president. “He couldn’t accomplish anything on that even if he wanted to, too much obstruction from the right. It’s heartless,” he said.
That said, “no president has taken on the agenda of poor people” since Richard Nixon, he said.
Biden, his wife, Jill, and other members of his family joined a crowd at the D.C. Armory, where 10,000 volunteers boxed supplies for troops overseas, veterans and first responders. Biden packed cotton swabs at the event, which was co-sponsored by the George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation.
A little ways away, Michael Ongele, 21, a senior from Howard University who grew up in Prince George’s County, sat at a table, writing a letter to a soldier that would be tucked into one of the care packages.
Ongele said he had often volunteered but never on a day of service. It would have been hard to “sit in your dorm room” this time, he said, because students had been inundated with Facebook messages about the event and posters around campus.
“In the last four years, he’s made a lot of progress,” Ongele said of the president. “The dream has been fulfilled. But there is a lot more work to do. Everybody wants Obama to do this or do that, but we have responsibilities as well. So I’m satisfied — but not complacent.”
Nick Anderson, Michelle Boorstein, Caitlin Gibson, Hamil R. Harris, Nikita Stewart and pool and wire services contributed to this report.