WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama says community service isn't "just an escape for the wealthy," and that it can help do for young people what it did for her husband. She says it helped set Barack Obama on a path to being elected president.
Mrs. Obama on Tuesday continued her effort to encourage volunteerism by visiting more than 100 disadvantaged youths who came to the National Mall to begin building a "green" house for a Texas family whose mobile home was destroyed by a hurricane.
The students participate in YouthBuild, a nationwide program in which poor 16- to 24-year-olds work toward their high school diplomas or equivalents while learning job skills as they build affordable housing for the homeless and the poor.
"The work you've done here is so impressive," Mrs. Obama said. "It's your core principle that I am impressed with, providing opportunities for amazing young people ... giving folks a second and third and fourth chance, particularly low-income youth.
"Sometimes we overlook them, we think that they can't be, they can't do," she said. "And it's places like YouthBuild that help you find yourselves and to be reborn in so many ways."
Mrs. Obama spoke of community service as "not just an escape for the wealthy or for those students who can afford it," but as an important part of "empowering our people and making our communities stronger."
She noted the president's work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and said "he gets it" as a result. Through his work registering voters and lobbying to bring jobs to the area, she said he found a community that embraced him.
"And he found his own direction, a direction that would bring him to where he is today, the president of the United States of America," Mrs. Obama said. "And all of that came through service, giving, contributing."
She said she didn't realize the importance of public service until she gave up being a corporate lawyer in Chicago to work in city government. Later on she helped start the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a national service program.
Mrs. Obama said people must remember "that everyone can make a difference and that we all have something to contribute."
Not everything will work out as planned after the participants leave Youth Build, she told them, adding that their lives will be filled with highs and lows. She told them to fall back on what they learned and the relationships they built through the organization.
Before speaking, Mrs. Obama visited exhibits on rooftop gardening, solar electricity and a technique that saves old-growth forests by using smaller pieces of lumber from managed forests, where new trees are planted after others are cut down.
She also toured the frame of the house for the Brownsville, Texas, family, and learned how carpet is made. It begins as plastic pellets, said Fani Bustos, 17, of Marietta, Ga., who gave the first lady her tutorial.
"She's interested in the program and that means a lot to us," Bustos said.
Mrs. Obama said Congress is working to expand national service programs.
President Obama's budget proposal for 2010, meanwhile, would expand YouthBuild from 8,000 to 50,000 young people annually. The program gets some funding through the Labor Department. Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill includes $50 million for YouthBuild, which Dorothy Stoneman started in 1978 in East Harlem, N.Y.
Stoneman said she was grateful to have people in the White House who understand what her students are going through.
"To have the White House meet the grass roots and feel like they're one with each other is so special," she said.
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