Presidents Obama, Bush Celebrate

Demand, idealism and presidential impact are leading American volunteerism to its third and most important stage - the movement of service to a central role in our national priorities. Boomers and teens are leading a record surge in overall volunteering even as millions of Americans are unemployed, homeless or hungry, and longer-term economic and social challenges mount.

On Friday, President Obama will visit former President George H.W. Bush in Texas to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Bush's Points of Light movement. Obama will thank Bush for launching the current era of service that has laid the foundation for Obama's own service agenda.

In the sweep of Presidential enthusiasm for service, the Points of Light initiative was a turning point. FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps and JFK's Peace Corps attracted Americans to federal service. Bush's Points of Light brought individual citizens together in their own organizations to solve problems in their own communities. Bush also created the Commission on National and Community Service as part of his Domestic Policy Council to support his service agenda. These advances have endured and grown in the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush '43 and now Obama, firmly establishing service as bipartisan.

President Obama, with Congress's strongest bipartisan support, signed the late Senator Kennedy's Serve America Act into law, boosted the budget for AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service, funded social innovation and volunteer infrastructure initiatives, launched the United We Serve campaign, and made civic engagement central to his presidency.

Today, 20 years after Bush switched on the Thousand Points of Light at his inauguration, the movement, led by Points of Light Institute, has endured and grown with great impact. Since 1989, we've seen:

  • record surges in American volunteering;
  • American businesses make support for employee volunteering commonplace;
  • high schools embrace service learning as a norm, and
  • service on college campuses become standard.

Just as importantly, we now understand the best practices that make service impactful for the beneficiary, meaningful for the participant and transformative for the community.

The Points of Light Institute with its HandsOn Network has been an important caretaker for President Bush's call. We equip people to create effective responses to community needs and mobilize others to serve. Our 250 action centers across the U.S. constitute the largest volunteer service organization in the country. In 2008, the network mobilized more than 1.2 million people to serve more than 30 million hours worth roughly $615 million dollars in time alone, plus the extraordinary benefits they deliver.

President Bush built a powerful legacy around making service central to people's lives. The next step in the service movement is to make service central to our nation's priorities. This aligns perfectly with President Obama's focus on impact. With challenges like unemployment, the drop-out crisis, prisoner reentry and environmental degradation looming across our communities, the call to citizens to step up and make a difference has never been more important.

Stage One: service through government. Stage Two: service through community. And now Stage Three: Service central to our national priorities.

Twenty years after Bush's Points of Light, Obama's call to service comes not a moment too soon.