A Tribute to George H.W. Bush's Legacy of Service

Over the past 20 years, there has been a rekindling of the fire of American voluntary action. The spark for this modern-day service movement was President George H. W. Bush.
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At times of great upheaval and uncertainty, the willingness of selfless people in this country and around the world to step up and make a difference is a singular constant. In the aftermath of the devastating Tohoku earthquake earlier this month, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan called his countrymen to "exercise the spirit of fraternity and act fast and to assist one's family and neighbors." And in the days since the disaster struck, we've seen countless acts of bravery, generosity and kindness in support of rebuilding lives in Japan.

Here at home and throughout our nation's history, the volunteer spirit of the American people has been connected to every reform and every response to disaster, poverty, and need. Together, we are the Red Cross volunteers, the soldiers, the AmeriCorps tutors, the first responders, the soup kitchen cooks, and the Foster Grandparents -- together, we are tackling our nation's most pressing social needs.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a rekindling of the fire of American voluntary action. The spark for this modern-day service movement was President George H. W. Bush. In his 1989 inaugural address, President Bush noted that even in times of scarcity, we have one resource that always grows -- "the goodness and courage of the American people." He called for "a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved ... a thousand points of light."

Just 30 years prior, another newly-inaugurated President stood on those same U.S. Capitol steps and beckoned us to see our citizenship as an invitation to serve, and 50 years later, the Peace Corps remains one of President Kennedy's most important and enduring successes. Both John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush knew that beyond laws and governance, it was the enlightened and inspired citizen volunteer and committed civic participation that fulfill the promises of democracy.

On Monday evening, we will honor President George H.W. Bush for his role in advancing the voluntary service movement. In an inspiring display of the bipartisan legacy of American volunteerism, President Bush will be joined by all living former presidents, Members of Congress from both parties and civic heroes who are living out the spirit of service every day.

When taken together, all forms of citizen service -- public service, military service, national service as well as domestic and international volunteerism - weave a tapestry of patriotism. This tribute to President Bush will highlight service luminaries as well as the next generation of volunteers, and serves as an important call to action for tackling our nation's challenges.

Following his 1989 speech, President Bush established what has become the Points of Light Institute -- an organization dedicated to recognizing and inspiring community volunteerism in America. In 1990, Bush signed the National and Community Service Act, and with that he ushered in an era of bipartisan Presidential leadership in support of volunteer service.

In 1993, President Clinton connected Americans of all ages and backgrounds with opportunities to give back to their communities and their nation by establishing the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps. In 2002, in the wake of the tragedy of 9-11, President George W. Bush created USA Freedom Corps and with it challenged all Americans to become engaged in volunteer service. And in 2009, President Obama extended this tradition by signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which triples the number of AmeriCorps members over eight years and expands and strengthens volunteerism.

The results of this bipartisan effort are clear: From 1989 to 2010, the number of individuals volunteering annually grew by 25 million people. Young people, in particular, have stepped forward in dramatic numbers to serve. Indeed, community engagement has become a natural pathway for young Americans who tie academic achievement with outreach to their communities and who are knocking at the doors of non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and City Year in record numbers.

When President Bush looked out from the Capitol steps more than 20 years ago, he saw far beyond the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument. He saw thousands of points of light -- great people across the country who light up their communities, their country and their world with their willingness to serve and their commitment to building a better place for all of us.

The life of President George H.W. Bush reminds us of our responsibility to keep the torch of service burning. We must continue to provide opportunities for dialogue and action that ensure our democracy and our values remain inclusive, vibrant and compassionate.

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