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A Nation of Volunteers

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Every year since 1974, U.S. presidents have proclaimed one week in April as National Volunteer Week. This recognition honors the millions of Americans who dedicate their personal time and talent to help make the world a better place. As President Obama noted in this year's proclamation,

"America's story has been marked by the service of volunteers. Generations of selfless individuals from all walks of life have served each other and our Nation, each person dedicated to making tomorrow better than today. They exemplify the quintessential American idea that we can change things, make things better, and solve problems when we work together."

As a nation we should take pride that during the last year alone almost 63 million Americans served as volunteers.

Volunteers play an even more critical role in difficult economic times. Today, as the federal government and many state and local governments confront unprecedented budget deficits, it is clear that the coming months and years will bring spending cuts that will significantly impact social services. Volunteers will be needed to help close the gap and alleviate the hardship that will be felt by many, including some of our nation's most vulnerable.

But volunteering is not good just because it is cheaper than government-operated alternatives. Volunteering in American expresses a fundamental belief that individual action matters. The millions of hours of volunteer time and energy strengthen our neighborhoods, forge new bonds among community members, and in fact often are the innovative leading edge of efforts to improve social conditions in our country. Volunteers have been a driving force across diverse issues such as civil rights, end-of-life care, child welfare, and hunger relief.

Many factors influence the decision to volunteer, from work schedules to family commitments and other responsibilities. But in most cases, the humanitarian impulse is a significant motivation. Anyone who has found time to volunteer realizes just how rewarding the experience can be. (And if we needed another reason, a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that volunteering may even be good for your health.)

While volunteering is a personal decision, both public and private sectors do have important roles to play. Companies can foster volunteerism through contributions to nonprofit organizations that support work carried out by volunteers, as well as by programs that encourage their employees to become volunteers. Many companies do this, from offering time off for certain volunteer activities to organizing volunteer activities, but more must be done. The outcome benefits everyone -- community, employee and employer.

With looming budget cuts and too many Americans unemployed and already in need, National Volunteer Week is a timely reminder of the strong spirit of volunteerism that has served our nation so well in the past. It also is a call to service.