- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., were among thousands of volunteers at RFK Stadium on Monday filling care packages for U.S troops serving overseas.

Heeding the call of her husband, President-elect Barack Obama, for a national day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mrs. Obama and the estimated 15,000 volunteers resembled a giant assembly line inside a heated tent in the middle of the stadium.

There they put toothpaste, foot cream, sunscreen, chewing gum, a five-hour energy drink and an AT&T; phone card into each care package. Volunteers also wrote letters of thanks to the soldiers.

The care packages will be sent to U.S servicemembers posted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The assembly line barely functioned, however, while Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden were present. Upon Mrs. Obama’s entrance, she was mobbed by volunteers inside the tent, and the Secret Service was hard-pressed to keep a secure bubble around her. A large crowd pressed against the cordon set up by agents, leaning to get pictures and video with handheld and cell-phone cameras.

Also with Mrs. Obama were her daughters Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10. Malia at one point got separated from her mother and was surrounded by people taking pictures. After two or three minutes, Obama staffers escorted the two young girls out of the tent.

“We did it! We shook [Mrs. Obama’s] hand! We seized the moment and did what we had to do!” said Dawn Noelle Smith, 35, to Kellee Jenkins, 30, after they had walked past Mrs. Obama in the line.

“I’m speechless,” Ms. Smith said afterward. “We’ve been saying all week that we were going to meet her.”

Both Ms. Smith, a third-grade teacher at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast, and Ms. Jenkins, a former teacher now working on her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, said Mr. Obama’s election had given them hope that low-income and disadvantaged students will now pay more attention to exhortations from authority figures like them not to settle for mediocrity or failure.

“Now that he’s reinforcing that philosophy, it feels like all our work is not in vain,” said Ms. Jenkins. “They can believe that they really can do anything they want.”

Sam Richardson, 33, of Alexandria, served in the U.S Air Force Reserves during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He said he came to RFK Stadium to give back to the troops he served with as well as those still serving.

“It’s great to see everyone come together like this,” said Mr. Richardson. “Many of those standing here may not like the war, but they respect the soldiers. It’s very beautiful to see that,” he said.

The project, organized by Serve DC, a volunteer service group; Operation Gratitude; and the Target chain store, aimed to pack about 70,000 care packages.

“When members of the military open our care packages, they will find all sorts of fun and useful items,” said Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude. “But my hope is that they will also feel all the love, respect, and appreciation of the American people,” she said.

By 1 p.m., barely three hours into the event, the volunteers had already filled more than 35,000 care packages.

Volunteers chanted “Obama, Obama” and sang along to music in the background. They included locals such as Mr. Richardson but also those travelling from across the country to attend Mr. Obama’s inauguration.

“It was just incredible to see Sasha and Malia with their mom like that. I think it’s a great experience for them to help out our soldiers, and they’re so darn cute,” said Jesse Fergeson, 22, of Charleston, S.C.

Also present at the event were Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, and U.S. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Ken Salazar of Colorado, also Democrats.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to bring together volunteers from across the nation to serve our troops while commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Mr. Fenty said.

“In making these care packages today, we celebrate the spirit of public service and remind those who have sacrificed the most that they are in our thoughts and in our hearts,” he said.

cJon Ward contributed to this report.

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