- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sensing a new “ethic of service” in the country, first lady Michelle Obama says community service and volunteer organizations can thrive and, with mutual support, rise to meet the challenges they face during hard economic times.

“I’m feeling it. People really want to get involved and turn their frustration [about economic challenges] into action,” Mrs. Obama said Tuesday as the keynote speaker at the Greater DC Cares Business and Nonprofit Philanthropy Summit and Awards luncheon in downtown Washington.

“Communities are built and rebuilt by regular people,” she told about 500 civic leaders, including Brearn Wright, principal of Truesdell Elementary School, and Catherine C. Martens, president and chief executive officer of the local Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Celebrating 20 years, Greater DC Cares trains volunteers, places them with needy organizations, provides professional development for businesses and offers emergency preparation and response.

The organization presented awards Tuesday to businesses and nonprofits that made exceptional contributions.

Bates White LLC was given the Greatest Impact on a Local Nonprofit Award, and Deloitte LLP and the Jewish Social Service Agency of Alexandria were honored with the Community Impact Award.

Tom Raffa, president of Raffa P.C., and Jonelle S. Wallmeyer, executive director of ACT for Alexandria, were presented Social Value Leadership Awards.

Mrs. Obama, a former community worker in Chicago, was quick to thank the attendees for making her and the president feel so welcome “in our second home” since moving into the White House in January. “What day was that again?” she teased.

The first lady said she understood from firsthand experience how difficult it can be to run a nonprofit, especially when fundraising dollars dry up.

She explained to the group that when she ran Public Allies, an AmeriCorps youth program in Chicago, she also struggled with payroll, fundraising and paperwork.

“It’s necessary work, but sometimes it can drive you nuts,” she said, as many of the community leaders in the group nodded and chuckled in agreement.

Mrs. Obama encouraged the community leaders at the event to support one another, because when push comes to shove, “private counsel” among community leaders means a great deal.

Mrs. Obama heralded the passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will triple funding for volunteer organizations.

“In order to make service a priority, we need the capacity to welcome new volunteers,” she said.

For her part, the first lady explained that in addition to relying on her peers in the community, she was buoyed while working in Chicago by seeing people from various backgrounds come together.

She said she recruited everyone for Public Allies, from college graduates to ex-felons, and she encouraged the luncheon attendees to learn from her example.

“That’s when the magic happened. You see the kid from Harvard and the kid with a GED both so full of promise,” she said.

Mrs. Obama closed her remarks by saying that she and the administration will be tapping the talent of the Washington nonprofit community for its ideas and inspiration.

“As tired as you may be, we’re going to need you. We can change the way the world sees us.”

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