- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton on Friday highlighted the benefits of volunteering as they celebrated the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps national service program and welcomed the newest class of volunteers.

“For those of you who know my story starting off as a community organizer, I would not be standing here if it were not for service to others, and the purpose that service gave my own life,” Obama said during a ceremony under sunny skies on the White House South Lawn. Hundreds of T-shirt clad volunteers had just raised their right hands and pledged to “get things done for America” during their year of service around the country.

Obama also noted the special place AmeriCorps has in his household. After giving up her career as a lawyer, first lady Michelle Obama ran a nonprofit program in Chicago that received one of the first AmeriCorps grants.

Clinton said signing the bill that created AmeriCorps was one of the most important things he had done to foster public service.

He also launched the first class of AmeriCorps volunteers 20 years ago Friday. Since then, more than 900,000 people have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours on service projects at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and religious-based groups nationwide.

At a time of public frustration with partisan gridlock in Washington, Clinton said the volunteers seated before him, who represented all walks of life, gave him reason to be hopeful.

“I know this is a difficult time. I know all Americans pray for our president and our men and women in uniform and the missions they are now undertaking,” the former president said in a clear reference to U.S. military action against Islamic State militants in the Middle East. “But this is no time to be pessimistic about America’s future. Look at you. Look at the rainbow of diversity united to advance our common humanity. That is the secret of our future.”

Obama announced a new initiative to encourage employers - private, nonprofit and government at all levels - to create recruitment, hiring and advancement opportunities for graduates of AmeriCorps, which is an exclusively domestic program, and the Peace Corps, which directs volunteers to service opportunities outside the U.S. He said Disney and the American Red Cross were among employers that had already signed up.

The White House ceremony was one of dozens held Friday in the 50 states and in several U.S. territories that included participation by other former presidents who helped expand AmeriCorps.

Former President George H.W. Bush participated in a pledge ceremony at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine. His son, former President George W. Bush, and former first lady Laura Bush also filmed a video that was shown at the ceremonies.

The elder Bush signed the 1990 National Service Act, which created the Commission on National and Community Service and funded a national service pilot program. The younger Bush expanded the number of AmeriCorps positions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap

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