Obama, George H.W. Bush celebrate the 5,000th 'point of light'

Mr. Obama will ask federal agencies how they can make better use of volunteers. 'We are a people that serve,' he says while paying 'tribute to the extraordinary example set by President Bush.'

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama and former President George H. W. Bush applaud during an event to honor the winner of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award at the White House in Washington July 15, 2013. Mr. Obama Lauded Mr. Bush for spurring enthusiasm for volunteer service.

President Obama on Monday [July 15] established a task force to help federal agencies identify ways to expand the use of national-service programs to help tackle policy priorities, such as improving failing schools and aiding the environment.

At a White House ceremony honoring former President George H.W. Bush and the 5,000th recipient of the Daily Points of Light award he inspired two decades ago during his Republican administration, Mr. Obama said the new task force would determine how federal agencies and private companies could use members of AmeriCorps and similar programs “on some of our most important national priorities: improving schools, recovering from disasters, and mentoring our kids.”

The task force will be led by Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Representatives of 12 Cabinet agencies—from environment and energy to homeland security and labor—have 180 days to determine how they can use volunteers, how to evaluate the effectiveness and cost of such partnerships, and how those relationships can create a pipeline to employment for volunteers.

Mr. Obama did not say how he would finance the expanded use of AmeriCorps members, who receive stipends and educational assistance for their service. Budget constraints led his administration to eliminate Learn and Serve America, a national-service program that encouraged young people to volunteer and previously one of the three main national-service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Learn and Serve America received $39.5 million in fiscal 2010 but was eliminated the following year.

The partnering efforts between the service corporation and federal agencies will build on existing programs such as FEMA Corps, which provides 1,600 AmeriCorps members to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief efforts; School Turnaround AmeriCorps, which works with the Department of Education to place 650 volunteers in low-performing schools; and STEM AmeriCorps, which places hundreds of AmeriCorps members with nonprofits to help science, technology, engineering, and math professionals steer students into those fields.

“In times of tight budgets and some very tough problems, we know that the greatest resource we have is the limitless energy and ingenuity of our citizens,” Mr. Obama said during the East Room ceremony at the White House. “And when we harness that energy and create more opportunities for Americans to serve, we pay tribute to the extraordinary example set by President Bush.”

Mr. Obama praised Mr. Bush for inspiring the Daily Points of Light Award, administered by the Points of Light Foundation since 1998. Mr. Obama stood on stage beside a wheelchair-bound Mr. Bush, who grinned widely and sported lively red- and white-striped socks that his son Neil later joked about.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush awarded the 5,000th Daily Points of Light award during the ceremony to Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, a retired couple from Union, Iowa, who founded a nonprofit called Outreach that has delivered 232 million free meals to children around the world.

President Obama then gave credit to Mr. Bush for spurring national enthusiasm for national service by signing the 1990 National and Community Service Act.

“Since 1989, the number of Americans who volunteer has grown by more than 25 million,” Mr. Obama said. “Today we can say that our country is a better and a stronger force for good in the world because, more and more, we are a people that serve. And for that, we have to thank President Bush, and his better half, Barbara, who is just as committed as her husband to service, and has dedicated her life to it as well.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service reported earlier this year that 64.3 million Americans “volunteered through a formal organization last year, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010,” according to its “Volunteering in America” report.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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