Nov 14, 2009

Volunteer Spirit Brings President Obama to A&M

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Article by Alexa Garcia-Ditta, Video by Reshma Kirpalani

It’s hard to find something Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 by the widest vote margin since Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and the widest for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but his policy agenda still faces opposition from Republicans. Still, many in both parties agree on the need to serve, the need to ignore the blue or red and help one another in times of crisis, tragedy or destitution.

(Multimedia reporter Reshma Kirpalani covered protests of the president’s visit outside the library. You can view her report above.)

“There’s some things that are beyond politics … that the R or D next to your name is irrelevant when nations in crisis need the world’s help, that certain moments call on us to stop the back and forth, and the bickering, to forget the old rivalries, and embrace a common purpose that is bigger than our differences,” Obama said to students at Texas A&M University in October 2009. Obama was in College Station at the invitation of Republican former president George H.W. Bush to mark the 20th anniversary of Bush’s Thousand Points of Light volunteer campaign.

Presidents from both parties have given nonpartisan momentum to volunteering in recent years. Beginning with his inaugural address in 1989 and creation of the Points of Light Institute, George H.W. Bush made service a part of his administration, calling for “a thousand points of light … to work hand in hand.” Bush is still known for his nonpartisan efforts to promote community service. He was active in the recovery of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and he created the Commission on National and Community Service in 1990 to encourage volunteer service. Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, led the creation of the service organization AmeriCorps in 1993. After he left office, Clinton joined Bush to raise money for the nations devastated by the 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia. The Bush-Clinton Tsunami Relief Fund also extended help to Hurricane Katrina victims.

After two months in office, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, expanding funding for AmeriCorps by $241 million as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan. 5210obama1The Commission on National and Community Service received $201 million. Two months after that, he and first lady Michelle Obama launched the United We Serve campaign, calling on Americans to make public service part of their everyday lives.

Obama and the elder Bush took the stage at Texas A&M on Oct. 17 to mark the anniversary of the Points of Light Institute, housed at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M. “This is not about politics,” Bush wrote in a letter before the forum. “This is about the importance of service to our communities and our country.”

Obama got an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd of more than 2,000. The year before, a protest led by the A&M chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas had ended with members throwing eggs at a photograph of Obama. But this event went differently.

“Students might have been more questioning if it had been a more controversial issue,” Mallory Myers, a junior at Texas A&M who was honored by the Points of Light Institute, said on Oct. 16. Myers, 21, is the director of the Big Event, a service day for A&M students. “Obviously you’re always going to have people that don’t agree with what’s going on, but overall students were very excited.”

Some protesters did gather in Spence Park outside the Rudder Theatre Complex, shouting “Hands off Texas.” Most of them were from out of town; only a handful of students joined the protest. (Reshma Kirpalani documented the protests in the accompanying video.)

5210obama2“The community understood that this was about service,” Myers said. “This brings hope and assurance that there’s always compromise, we just have to find it.”

About 23 million young Americans, like Myers, have volunteered since 1989. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that 61.8 million Americans volunteered in 2008, and the rate of young volunteers has grown 60 percent in the last 20 years. AmeriCorps and Peace Corps applications are also up. Thanks to both the economy and the stimulus, Teach for America reported a 42 percent year-to-year increase in applications while AmericCorps saw a 400 percent jump.

“You all don’t have a lot of patience for pettiness and bickering,” Obama said to the students. “Rather than arguing about whether or how we should do something, you’d rather just go out there and get it done.” Community service is “a good epidemic,” Myers said. “It’s a call of hope to our generation to step up. It’s not an extra, but something we do that’s a part of our lives.”

Multimedia reporter Reshma Kirpalani covered protests of the president’s visit outside the library. You can view her report above.