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5,000 Points of Light: Honoring Our Impulse to Give

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While immigration reform, along with just about any other meaningful reform, may be yet another victim of the polarization in Washington, true bipartisanship is still possible. Yesterday President Obama and the first lady, along with Vice President Biden and his wife, hosted former president George Herbert Walker Bush, former first lady Barbara Bush, and other members of the Bush family to honor the winners of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award and highlight the value of volunteer service. More than just the occasion for a feel-good photo-op, marking this milestone is a way of highlighting that volunteer service is one of the uniting principles of our country and an essential part of meeting the challenges we face.

The awards are given by Points of Light, an organization founded in 1990 to encourage Americans to volunteer and mobilize their efforts. The name, of course -- as the non-Millennials among us will recall -- is taken from President Bush's description of those who give their time and energy to their fellow Americans as "a thousand points of light."

Since then, the program has grown to include affiliate chapters in 250 cities -- chapters that, in partnership with thousands of nonprofits and service organizations, have created opportunities for more than four million people, who put in 30 million hours of volunteer service per year. Points of Light's current programs include Community Blueprint, which helps communities provide support for veterans and their families; Citizen Academy, a for-credit program that explores the connection between citizenship and service; generationOn, a youth service initiative; Neighboring, which helps local residents create sustainable solutions in their communities; and Civic Incubator, which supports innovative early-stage startups focused on civic solutions.

The principle behind the program was most memorably articulated by President Bush in his inaugural speech in January of 1989: "For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people."

In the address, he spoke of putting that desire to serve into action:

I am speaking of a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done. We must bring in the generations, harnessing the unused talent of the elderly and the unfocused energy of the young. For not only leadership is passed from generation to generation but so is stewardship.

It's a principle that's always been very close to my heart -- no matter where I've been in my political journey. In fact, I was invited to join the board by Ray Chambers, who was Points of Light's founding chairman. After achieving success in business, instead of being content to simply amass corporate power, he turned his remarkable skills and passion toward finding solutions to problems all over the world. In addition to founding Malaria No More, he's been the U.N.'s special envoy for malaria since 2008, and a few months ago the secretary-general expanded his mandate to Special Envoy for Financing the Health Millennium Development Goals. In 1997, along with Colin Powell, he co-founded America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth (which helps young people get involved with community volunteerism), and he's funded college educations for hundreds of Newark students. In short, he's an example of American leadership at its best.

While serving on the board, the offshoot that I began working with was called Family Matters, a program that encouraged families to discover the benefits of volunteering together. I had seen those benefits in a very real way in my own family. One of the places I would take my daughters to volunteer when we lived in Washington, D.C. was Children of Mine, a community center in Anacostia for children who had nowhere to go after school. On one occasion, shortly after my daughter Isabella's fifth birthday party, we went to the center, and there was another little girl who was turning five. The sum total of her birthday celebration was one chocolate chip cookie. From the corner of my eye, I could see Isabella tearing up. When we returned home, she gathered up every single present she had been given and insisted that we take them back to the little girl at the center.

Now, Isabella did not actually turn into Mother Teresa that day, and she went on to have the same moments of self-absorption as any teenager, but it was an example of how you can talk endlessly to your children about empathy, responsibility, not taking what they have for granted and the value of giving back, but allowing them to experience it for themselves is much more powerful and transformative.

There are so many forces that divide us from one another. And with the increasing presence of technology, families can easily drift apart, even while in the same room. Volunteering is a force that can bridge those divides and strengthen families at the same time. The idea is to make volunteering a first-level option for families when they're deciding what to do -- right in the mix along with movies, going out to eat, playdates, soccer, and Little League. In other words, a normal part of American family life. And I'm happy to say that there are still several Family Matters chapters around the country, continuing to make that goal a reality. Every year, Points of Light also sponsors Family Volunteer Day on the Saturday before Thanksgiving (which means this year's will be held on Nov. 23).

If you want to get inspired before then, you can take a look at some of the Daily Points of Light award winners. "Points of Light are the soul of America," said President Bush in 1993. "They are ordinary people who reach beyond themselves to touch the lives of those in need, bringing hope and opportunity, care and friendship. By giving so generously of themselves, these remarkable individuals show us not only what is best in our heritage but what all of us are called to become." A few recent winners include Nanci Boutet, who hosts a Special Surfer Night each month for special-needs children, building their confidence while teaching them a new sport. Or Alanna Wall, who founded Polished Girlz at age 10. The group takes "nail parties" to children with cancer and other illnesses, creating a fun way for them to learn how hand-washing can limit infections.

And the recipients of the 5,000th award are Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton from Union, Iowa, who, instead of retiring after a lifetime of farming, decided to fight hunger in the U.S. and in more than 15 countries by creating a nonprofit that delivers free meals to children. If you know somebody you'd like to nominate for a Daily Point of Light, you can do it here.

Or, even better, you can be a daily point of light in your own way. As John Bridgeland wrote in his book, Heart of the Nation: Volunteering and America's Civic Spirit, volunteerism has always been the "connective tissue that ensures our country remains the land of opportunity for all." Bridgeland was a senior aide in the Bush 43 administration, responsible for making the USA Freedom Corps a reality after 9/11. He's now co-chair, along with General Stanley McChrystal, of the Franklin Project, which aims to create a system of voluntary civilian national service. "There is a quiet revolution under way in the service arena," he writes in his book, that gives "everyone across the political spectrum new ways to unite behind solutions to common problems."

Bridgeland also notes the many neuroscience studies that are increasingly confirming the truth that humans have an innate instinct to reach out and connect through giving of themselves. But this impulse is like a muscle -- it needs to be strengthened through regular exercise. And when that happens, and it becomes an essential part of our lives, it's a process that transforms the giver as much as the receiver. That's why at HuffPost we've made giving back a crucial component of our Third Metric campaign, which is about redefining success to include more than just the pursuit of money and power. And there are few things that can have as powerful an effect on our well-being -- which should be the true measure of success -- as giving back. This is how President Bush put it in his inaugural speech in 1989:

We are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives. In our hearts we know what matters. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend; a loving parent; a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood, and town better than he found it. And what do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we're no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us? Or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?

The media also have a role to play. Too often volunteering is portrayed as just a feel-good, heart-warming afterthought used to wrap up a newscast, or as something confined to Thanksgiving or Christmas -- when, in fact, it's always been a vital part of the essential compact of America and how we've become the nation we are. But to continue that progress, to keep that "connective tissue" alive, we need to keep connecting.

Our leaders in Washington are not the only manifestation of our civic spirit. They may be, for the time being, at least, hopelessly polarized, but our representatives are not actually very representative. And volunteering is the ultimate in bipartisanship. No matter what you feel the role of government should be, everybody can agree on the spirit behind the Points of Light.

Recently, Points of Lights CEO Michelle Nunn wrote on HuffPost about the launch of their One America campaign, a year-long effort to "bring together rivals in politics, entertainment and sports with the goal of inspiring millions to unite in service to their communities."

Our political leaders can have a big effect on volunteering. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps; JFK, the Peace Corps; Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps -- every president has seen the importance of volunteering. But volunteering, in turn, has the power to change our politics. So if you're frustrated by the lack of solutions in Washington, you can create your own small solution in your community.

If you'd like to volunteer for Points of Light, you can find opportunities here. And let us know who the points of lights are in your own life and in your community.

So congratulations to Points of Light and their 5,000th daily award winners. May there be many to follow.