Thousands of D.C.-area residents grabbed shovels, paint brushes and shipping boxes as part of the National Day of Service on Saturday to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in advance of Monday's national holiday for King and inaugural celebration.
Begun in 2009 by the first family, the goal of the service day is to show that service "is more than a one-off event, it's a lifetime commitment," President Obama said.
Joined by his wife, Michelle, the president helped stain a bookcase at Burrville Elementary School in Northeast Washington, while Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his wife, Jill, helped assemble care packages at the D.C. Armory that were destined for first responders and members of the military.
"We have to go back to reaching out," Mr. Biden said. "Right now, there are 68,000 troops in harm's way. They're not looking for anything, but knowing we, back home, remember them is an important part of the equation."
Sprucing up a school or preparing mail for soldiers were just two of the thousands of opportunities around the District, as well as the country, that invited people to give back. Even the Mall, which has been transformed into a maze of security fencing and camera stands in preparation for the inauguration, had space for a large tent lit with red and blue lights to welcome visitors and introduce them to organizations that depend on volunteers.
Kiosks placed throughout the tent beckoned people to type in their names and preference for service, be it health, education, faith, community, military or environmental-based work.
Potomac resident Lynn Morgan said she brought her three children to the Mall as part a long-standing tradition in their family.
"We have friends visiting from upstate New York, so we wanted to bring them down to the National Mall, but we also have always volunteered for our synagogue for Martin Luther King Day," Ms. Morgan said. "I love that this is a national program. It's a fantastic way to celebrate the United States by showing how we can help each other."
The opportunities to help people around the country ran the gamut during the National Day of Service.
More than a dozen Cabinet members, including Interior Department Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, offered their help, and Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, served as the honorary chairwoman for the service day.
While the service tent on the Mall was more like a college fair, with crowds gathered at tables weighed down with brochures, pens, buttons and sign-up sheets, at the D.C. Armory it was all business.
To be sure, the cavernous arena pulsated with music, and people laughed and mugged for cameras at photo booths placed throughout the space, but organizers planned to pack 100,000 boxes, so every minute of volunteerism counted.
Cleveland resident Marty Bonds, 70, was able to grab a few minutes of down time, and as he unwrapped his lunch, he explained that his friend who lives in Virginia convinced him to leave his home in northern Ohio and make the trip to help on Saturday.
"It's been a phenomenal effort and a lot of energy," Mr. Bonds said of the day. "I'm a retired Army officer. I did two tours in Vietnam. When you are out and away from the creature comforts, to the average person it may not seem like much, but when you're out there, it's a lot."
The 100,000 boxes will be sent to various military units, as well as to first responders. Inside the boxes were toothbrushes, floss, make-up removers, hand sanitizer, and even lint removers.
Each box also included a handwritten postcard, which visitors and volunteers were encouraged to write.
Shannon Stinson, 27, said she started her letter "Dear hero," because as a former military spouse, she understood what those words can mean for someone overseas.
"I wanted to thank them for their sacrifice and let them know I am thinking about them," she said. "It lets them know we care."
As he waited for the next wave of volunteers at the Armory, Gary Renville, vice president for the HandsOn Network, said the service day was not intended to be a "done-in-a-day kind of thing."
His group is part of the overarching Points of Light organization, which started after President George H.W. Bush's comments in 1990 on volunteers as a "thousand points of light."
The hope for the day was to show people that opportunities exist for service 365 days a year, Mr. Renville said.
"Whatever your passion, whether it's youth or the economy, there's something for everybody to do," he added. "This is a start to the service year."
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