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National Conference on
Community Volunteering and National Service
Points of Light Foundation

Remarks as prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Baltimore, Maryland
Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Thank you Leslie (Lenkowsky) for your generous introduction. It is an honor to be here with all of you this afternoon.

This conference underscores the renewed sense of unity in civic purpose, volunteerism and national service that exists today across our country. Americans from coast to coast, and from all walks of life, have answered the President's call to service.

Neighbors are reaching out to neighbors, youth and the elderly are volunteering, businesses are partnering with government, and individuals and families are lending a hand where they can to get involved...to help tackle our nation's most pressing social problems.

The Points of Light Foundation and your many partners are helping assist and spotlight the myriad of ways that Americans are responding to President Bush's challenge and the important role that volunteering and community service play in giving everyone a chance at the American Dream.

All of you in this room should be proud, for you are helping build a culture of service, responsibility and goodwill in our country.

For those of us who serve in the Bush Administration, it's an exciting experience. We live in an age that calls for great courage and wisdom, as well as compassion and generosity. President Bush is providing a model of leadership for our time.

I have come to know President Bush as a profoundly humane and caring man. His programs are guided by his commitment to build stronger communities and empower families. He wants every American to have an opportunity to share fully in the benefits of our free and prosperous society.

He has inspired the nation and the world to take up the challenge of ending global terrorism and making our world peaceful and secure. And his leadership in domestic affairs is just as inspired. His vision for America ties his love of country to a commitment to equal rights and opportunity for all.

President Bush has high goals in mind and he believes in the spirit of our nation. Immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he asked the American people to give more of themselves...and you eagerly responded. Americans came together in ways possibly not seen since the Second World War. The nation changed and we are stronger for it. Out of that attack came heroism, honor, and service, and a cruel, but blessed reminder of our connection-and our need to be connected-to one another.

We all heard the heroic stories of firefighters who wrote social security numbers on their arms and then entered burning buildings to save others. You know of men and women who brought a plane to the ground to ensure that others would not be harmed, probably saving the lives of many of my colleagues who were working at the White House at the time. You know of the Americans who traveled from east, west, north, and south to pitch tents and shelters to provide comfort to the victims of those attacks. But well before that fateful September day, the idea of volunteerism was already central to the President's vision. Here is what he said in his Inaugural Address:

"What you do is as important as anything government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort; to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor. I ask you to be citizens: citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character. Americans are generous and strong and decent, not because we believe in ourselves, but because we hold beliefs beyond ourselves. When this spirit of citizenship is missing, no government program can replace it. When this spirit is present, no wrong can stand against it."

A long time ago George Washington spoke of "friends and fellow-citizens" in his Farewell Address. He hoped America would become "a sacred union of citizens" who aspired to be "friends" ... bonded to each other by love more than law.

The terrorist attacks of almost two years ago reminded us that as citizens, we have important obligations to one another. September 11th resulted in a tremendous display of kindness, decency, generosity, patriotism, and civic pride from the American people.

We became aware that in order to live in a free society, we must give something back. All of us owe something to America. And the President believes there are ways to do that -- perhaps in the military ... or by showing some person with real acts of kindness that you care about him or her.

To help a neighbor in need is part of a complete life. It is how you make sure your life has a meaning larger than yourself. One of life's greatest joys is to live a giving existence -- to be of service to others. The desire to help those in need and to promote the common good is basic to our national character.

And it was not long after 9/11 that President Bush issued a timeless call to service by creating the USA Freedom Corps. In doing so, he engaged Americans to create a culture of citizenship and responsibility in America's communities. At the same time, he called on all Americans to dedicate at least two years of their lives -- the equivalent of 4,000 hours -- in service to their communities, our country, or the world.

The idea behind President Bush's Freedom Corps is to channel the torrent of good will and compassion that was emerging after the attacks... to tap the deep desire to become involved in serving others in our communities, our country, and other nations. Widespread civic involvement can strengthen America and uplift the world.

The challenge the President issued is significant. Research shows that community involvement and volunteer service in the United States had been steadily declining in recent years. Research also showed that two of the main reasons individuals gave for not volunteering were: 1) that they were never asked and 2) that they did not know where to start. The President recognized this problem and took swift and clear-cut steps to address it.

As a young boy from Cuba who was welcomed into this country by strangers, I have seen for myself the wonderful way in which people of compassion can be motivated to open their hearts. I want every child, and every man and woman who reaches out a hand in search of another, to find the same love that carried me through the most difficult time in my life.

Since coming to America, I have been blessed with many opportunities and I have always sought to give something back to my adoptive country. When I began practicing law, I was the first bilingual lawyer in the Orlando area. And so I became a person that Hispanic families would turn to for legal advice and help with many of their problems. Many of them, of course, had little or no money. I helped however I could, and I received from them more than I gave.

And a number of years ago, my wife Kitty and I decided that there was more that we could do to be of service; to lend a hand up to a person or family in need. So we adopted a family who had recently arrived from Vietnam as refugees from Communism -- just I had been.

Today, my oldest son and daughter are also actively involved in community service (say a few words about what they are doing). Influencing another life in such a profound way brings with it a deep sense of satisfaction that I am glad my very own children now have the opportunity to experience first-hand.

Organizations like those represented here tonight that are founded on service to others -- that seek to relieve a neighbor of a heavy load -- are at the heart of civil society, and have carried countless individuals through their most difficult times. We are blessed to live in a land where government embraces such work.

It is not a lack of compassion that keeps some citizens from answering the President's call to involvement. Often government itself stands in the way.

Governments can hand out money, but it cannot put hope in people's hearts. It's individual persons who change one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time. This is why President Bush has created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

He has charged that office with lifting up this nation's charitable service organizations and encouraging good works. Many faith-based and community-based organizations that seek to partner with the federal government feel excluded and discriminated against. And they have been. But I can assure you that we are putting an end to that form of discrimination.

The roadblocks include outright bias, arbitrary and burdensome regulations, and general confusion regarding the separation of church and state. Bigger and better-funded organizations have an easier time, because their lawyers handle the legal work and their staff do the paperwork. But these barriers prevent HUD and other federal agencies from partnering with America's smaller faith-based and community groups.

There have been cases where groups rooted in faith wanted to participate in HUD funding -- until they were told they would qualify for a grant only if they revised their mission statement to drop out references to God.

Instead of fearing faith, government ought to embrace and encourage the good work of faith-based and community organizations like yours. Local charitable programs should be judged on one central question: do they work?

Try imagining America without the secular non-profit organizations, large and small, that work with and through community-based organizations to meet critical social and urban needs. The Points of Light Foundation. The American Red Cross. America's Promise. Best Friends. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Boys & Girls Clubs of America. I could go on and on.

Both faith-based and secular community-serving organizations rely greatly on volunteers, and, in both cases, those volunteers are drawn largely from churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions. We should not fear working with these groups, whether they be community-based or faith-based, we should embrace them.

HUD is taking steps immediately to break down the barriers to faith-based groups and to partner more effectively with local community organizations that truly understand the nature of the problems faced by their neighbors. We are streamlining our regulations to level the playing field and allow faith-based organizations to compete for federal funds.

Before I conclude, let me say a few words about what the Bush Administration and our partners in the private and non-profit sectors are doing to increase homeownership -- especially among minorities -- in America.

President Bush calls homeownership "a cornerstone of America," and this Administration believes passionately in its power to transform families, their communities, and the nation as a whole. So, for a second straight year, the President has designated June as National Homeownership Month. This is our opportunity to share the homeownership message with families nationwide.

Today, a record number of Americans own their own homes, yet a gap persists between the homeownership rates of minorities and non-minorities. By a significant margin, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian American families are less likely to own their own homes.

To address this ongoing problem, President Bush announced a year ago this month a bold plan to close that gap and create 5.5 million new minority homeowners by 2010. He issued "America's Homeownership Challenge" to the housing industry and advocacy groups to join the Administration in its commitment to increase homeownership rates for minorities.

At HUD, we responded by launching the "Blueprint for the American Dream Partnership," an unprecedented collaboration that is creating new homeownership opportunities by harnessing the resources of the federal government with those of the private sector.

And, just a week ago today, we launched the HUD "Homeownership Express," which will travel from coast to coast throughout the month of June, taking the President's message into neighborhoods and communities setting more families -- especially minority families -- on the road to owning their own homes.

Our efforts to promote homeownership reflect the President's desire to empower families. Homeownership is about more than just finding shelter; when we empower a family through homeownership, they have new opportunities to build a better quality of life.

Homeownership creates community stakeholders who tend to be active in charities and churches. It inspires civic responsibility. And possibly of greatest importance, homeownership offers children a stable living environment that influences their personal development in many positive ways.

Our nation has gone through a lot during the last two years. We endured an economic recession that brought suffering to many American families. We suffered through the horror of international terrorism and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. And we committed young American men and women to the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq to rid the world of those looking to do us harm. These brave soldiers have been victorious and Americans from all across the country have reached out to support them.

The tragic events of 9/11 brought horrible evil to our country. But I believe the Lord can bring good out of evil. These painful events have awakened the spiritual and patriotic yearnings of our people. Everyone has witnessed life's frailty, but Americans now seek deeper meaning in our personal lives and greater attachment to our families, neighborhoods, communities, churches, and nation.

To satisfy those yearnings, we need new ways of thinking and acting. The Bush Administration is committed to tearing down old prejudices and transforming America community by community. Let's not allow the memory of September 11th to pass away without embracing our responsibility for the well-being of our "friends and fellow-citizens."

Thank you -- and God bless you.

Content Archived: March 16, 2010

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