Muhammad Ali poses during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2006. (Reuters/Andreas Meier)

Muhammad Ali was a humanitarian who supported the Special Olympics and advocated for the poor, for peace and for research into Parkinson’s disease. Now a month after the world famous boxer’s death, his widow is calling on members of the public to “be like Ali”  and take part in a public service campaign she’s creating in her husband’s honor.

People would be asked to volunteer for a total of 75 hours, starting on Muhammad Ali’s 75th birthday on Jan. 17, 2017, and lasting throughout the year.

The campaign will officially kick off in mid-July with a series of events, including one in Muhammad Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Ky. Last week, Lonnie Ali shared a few details at the annual Points of Light volunteer conference in Detroit.

“He often said ‘service is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,'” she said. “The time has come for all of us to pick up the torch from Mohammad and shine our own lights on the places and people who have been in the shadows for too long.”

Lonnie Ali, widow of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, accepted an award from the Points of Light organization on her late husband's behalf in Detroit on June 29. (Points of Light)

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Ali said the idea for the campaign came to her while preparing to attend the conference, which brought together 3,000 nonprofit leaders, corporate social responsibility staff and active volunteers.  But the seeds were planted, she said, by a conversation she had with her husband.

“A few years ago, he said when it was time for him to go, to  use his life and his death as a teaching moment for the country. That was what he wanted,” Lonnie Ali said. He wanted the world to know that adversity “cannot rob you of your power to achieve your dreams” and that service to others is part of what makes America great.

The campaign will be led by a street team of college interns, who signed up charity and civic leaders in Detroit last week. Up next is Forecastle, a music festival in Louisville that attracts thousands of young people, said Donald Lassere, president and CEO of the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum and cultural center headquartered in downtown Louisville that promotes education, gender equality and global citizenship.

The effort dovetails with the center’s annual humanitarian awards, given in September to activists and change agents ages 14 to 30, and its Generation Ali initiative, which focuses on helping young people realize “they can be great by helping humanity,” Lassere said.  The museum also will debut new exhibits in September that will ask questions and encourage people to “seek greatness doing service,” he said.

Ali, a heavyweight champion in the 1960s, died June 3 at a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease and respiratory problems. His death triggered an outpouring of sympathy and reminiscence of his showy boxing style and the thousands who greeted him as he toured the world preaching unity and peace and visiting prisoners, hospital patients and others in need of help.

President George Bush in 2005 awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him “a fierce fighter and a man of peace” who possessed a “beautiful soul.”

Ali’s last public event occurred in April at a Celebrity Fight Night dinner in Phoenix to raise money for Parkinson’s.

It’s unclear whether the campaign will continue after next year.  Organizers aim to attract at least 1 million participants initially but hope the campaign will take off internationally and include millions more, Lassere said.

Still, 75 hours is a huge commitment, when the average American donated a median of 52 volunteer hours in the year ending September 2015.  Younger people, ages 16 to 34, donated a median of 36 hours in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.  Those 65 and older were most likely to donate 100 hours or more a year.

The Ali campaign will target families to volunteer together and young people ages 13 to 24. But Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of practice at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and a former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said it will be difficult to increase volunteer hours by so much and bring more into the fold.

“That’s a big lift,” Lenkowsky said. The share of Americans who volunteer time has stayed between 25 and 26 percent for several years now, even as individual campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge, drew a lot of attention.

The launch date of Jan. 17 also falls near the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service scheduled for Jan. 16 next year, perhaps pushing the limits of volunteerism further.

However, Samantha Jo Warfield, press secretary at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers MLK Day, pointed out that Ali shared some of King’s beliefs in nonviolence and community, and suggested that the two efforts might work well in tandem.

A campaign by Lonnie and Muhammad Ali could “light a spark” and invite in people who have never before been asked to volunteer, she said.

Ali married Yolanda ‘Lonnie ‘ Ali in 1986, shortly after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  His fourth wife, she had met him when she was 6 and he was a rising boxing star whose parents lived in her neighborhood. After they wed, she managed his business affairs and his health as his caregiver, and helped to open the Muhammad Ali Center.

Lonnie Ali has been advocate for caregivers and for youth education and served for three years on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.  At  the Detroit conference, she spoke of her husband’s legacy as a beautiful beacon to young people, folding her hands, as if in prayer, as she talked.

“Even though he was slowed by Parkinson’s Disease, Muhammad was compelled to use his gifts to support the victims of poverty and strife,” she remarked. He loved the idea of inspiring service by others, as the best gift anyone could give him, she said. Lonnie Ali received a standing ovation when her 8 1/2-minute speech ended with these words:

“My husband believed that the soul of a nation could be measured in the goodness of its people. And I see that goodness here in this room. So I ask you to pick up that torch. In honor of my husband’s memory, I ask you to prove that there is Ali in all of us, and your own greatness in the love and service you provide to each other and to the world.”

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