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Points of Light


In Kansas City, Cliff Sargeon, the director of the LandlordNegotiation Committee, has led the effort to close down 200 crack houses.

In Oklahoma City, William and Sandra Hale, a doctor-and-nurse team both stricken with multiple sclerosis, continue to run a free health clinic that serves thousands of indigent patients a year.

In Glen Arden, Maryland, Van Standifer started a midnight basketball program to get teen-agers off drugs, off crime and off the street.

The Points of Light Foundation was created a year ago not just to showcase individual programs like these, but to help raise the notion of voluntary service to the status of a national movement. Our mission is to seize the public imagination and challenge every American to get involved in direct and consequential community service. In short, we want to see the "Me Generation" become the "We Generation."

Our emphasis on private-sector involvement does not mean we are prescribing an end to public support efforts. On the contrary, many government programs are essential to the well-being of millions of Americans. But our nation has reached a critical point where our government's ability to expand social spending has run smack into a budgetary brick wall.

Moreover, there is a growing consensus among experts and a wide spectrum of political leaders that there are severe limits to what some government programs can accomplish even if money is no object. Thus, it has become clear that private, voluntary efforts must be vastly expanded to meet the challenges of poverty, ignorance and alienation that grip many sectors of society. Government alone cannot fill the void left by disintegrating families, schools and communities.

On April 15 we launched a national advertising campaign with the slogan: "Do Something Good. Feel Something Real." The important point is that both the volunteers and the participants in private-sector programs get something valuable out of their mutual involvement -- a sense of meaning, adventure and hope.

In "Democracy in America," Alexis de Tocqueville continually marveled at our nation's volunteer spirit: "How does it happen," he asked, "that everyone takes as zealous an interest in the affairs of his township, his country and the whole state as if they were his own?"

Can America recapture this sense of spirit and commitment? Or have years of relative economic ease and security blunted our sense of responsibility and our urge to be involved?

Last fall a survey of more than 2,700 Americans showed a sharp rise in both charitable giving and volunteering, particularly among the so-called "baby boomers." These results were echoed in our own survey. We asked the respondents to rate their reactions to the phrase "Points of Light" and to "the idea of urging every person in America to actively get involved with solving social problems in their community." A remarkable 81 percent said they were favorable, with almost no differences among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. On another question, 60 percent of those polled said they were likely to donate time.

While both polls are very auspicious, the actual decision to make a commitment to serve is usually a very personal one. I know from my own experience that it has little to do with trends, graphs or charts. Last Thanksgiving, before I accepted the job as CEO of the Points of Light Foundation, my first grandchild was born. I looked at this innocent little girl, and I looked around at society's problems, and I just got hooked by the mission.

It is a mission that means we must fundamentally charge the rules of the game. For example, it can no longer be an "elective" for corporations to have active community-service programs; it has to be part of the core curriculum. Or, to put it another way, the business of business is no longer only business.

One of the real benefits of volunteerism is the fact that the more people get involved in community service, the more they become sensitive to questions of public policy. People go from being wallflowers to activists, and this breeds even more activity. And since there are more people than problems, each of us can reach out and make a difference.

William James, writing in his "Essays on Faith and Morals," said, "Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up." The whole country may be in store for a new awakening.

Richard F. Schubert heads the Points of Light Foundation. This article is taken from remarks he made recently at a Johns Hopkins University community breakfast.

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