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The Heroes Who Choose to Do More Than Show Up

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Maybe Woody Allen had it wrong.

Maybe 90 percent of life is NOT just showing up because, every day, in countless ways, individuals, organizations and corporations around this country don't just show up; they show up and give back.

April 18-24 is National Volunteer Week, an apt occasion to pause and celebrate the millions of Americans who have seen the needs in their communities -- financial hardship and poverty, a stubborn high school dropout rate, ongoing threats to our environment -- and asked, "what can I do to help?"

Through cutting-edge technologies and in everyday, unheralded acts of generosity, volunteers are making a difference in communities across America. Young people are flooding programs such as City Year and Teach for America with applications, children are staging play-a-thons and bake sales to raise money for orphanages in Haiti, baby boomers are rejecting retirement for stints as tutors for at-risk students.

A lethargic economy notwithstanding, Americans are volunteering in record numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' January 2010 report, 1.5 million more Americans volunteered between September 2008 and September 2009 than the previous year.

The imperative of service is not limited to individuals. The Business Civic Leadership Center reports that companies are "increasingly exploring ways to take direct action through partnership, philanthropy, employee engagement and other vehicles to solve issues such as education, wellness and community development that had historically not been considered part of their cost of doing business." Just one example of the generosity and ingenuity of corporate service is Newman's Own. The company continues Paul Newman's commitment to donate after-tax profits to charity through its foundation, giving more than $290 million to thousands of charities since 1982.

At the nexus of these welcome trends in civic engagement is technology. As we buy and sell on eBay, we are two mouse clicks away from a charitable contribution. The American Red Cross received more than $22 million in U.S. cell phone text message donations for Haiti earthquake relief efforts. Need and opportunity have met in cyberspace and formed a great network of volunteer options for anyone, anytime, anywhere wishing to do good.

President Obama is leading and inspiring this 21st century service movement. Last April, he signed the landmark Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. It expands existing national and community service programs and creates several new initiatives that could transform the nation's volunteer infrastructure and replicate effective and innovative social programs.

More recently, in an October 2009 speech, he noted that our national story is the story of "women who reached for the ballot; and people who stood up, and sat in, and marched for justice. It's the story of firefighters and police officers who rushed to those burning towers and ordinary people who rushed to the aid of a flooded American city. That's always been the story of this nation -- the story of those who stepped forward in our darkest hours to serve it...those folks weren't in it for the money. Those folks were volunteers."

Today, these volunteers are individuals such as Dennis, a law professor who gives his free time to help Boulder County, Colo., residents access the information they need to resolve their financial challenges. He once took the case of an elderly woman who lost her life savings in a questionable investment scheme. After considerable research, Dennis identified an organization able to restore such losses and the woman eventually recovered her entire nest egg.

Carrie started as a mentor to new families in Sacramento, Calif., and, over time, made a difference in the lives of hundreds of families by leading Family Life workshops in a Mother-Baby program. She also sorted donations, hung clothing, organized the baby food and diapers, and assisted parents in shopping for baby clothing. During the summer, Carrie noticed how hard it was for some families to afford diapers, so she started a diaper drive in her community.

Jim, who went to New Orleans as a skilled carpenter after Hurricane Katrina, said, "I've always wanted to come down and be a part of the recovery efforts. When I saw Katrina hit and saw how badly people were hurting, I wanted to be able to help out in some way. I have some skills that I knew would be useful to the rebuilding efforts, and I wanted to use them. I originally thought I'd be down here for a month, but there's so much more to do here than I envisioned. Now I have committed to be here for three or more months...My motto is one nail at a time, one house at a time, one percent at a time."

One percent at a time. Combine that with 90 percent for showing up and volunteers are moving toward the full measure of life as compassionate and giving individuals who are transforming communities across this nation. National Volunteer Week is an ideal time to recognize these individuals. Points of Light Institute is leading the nation in commemorating this week of "celebrating people in action." For more about the week and ideas for how to honor remarkable volunteers you know, please visit the Hands On Network.