Yesterday President Obama and the first lady, along with Vice President Biden and his wife, hosted former president George Herbert Walker Bush, former first lady Barbara Bush, and other members of the Bush family to honor the winners of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award and highlight the value of volunteer service. More than just an occasion for a feel-good photo-op, marking this milestone is a way of highlighting that volunteer service as one of the uniting principles of our country and an essential part of meeting the challenges we face.
The awards are given by Points of Light, an organization founded in 1990 to encourage Americans to volunteer and mobilize their efforts. The name is taken from President Bush's description of those who give their time and energy to their fellow Americans as "a thousand points of light."
Since its creation, the program has grown to include affiliate chapters in 250 cities -- chapters that have created opportunities for more than four million people, who put in 30 million hours of volunteer service per year.
The principle behind the program was most memorably articulated by President Bush in his inaugural speech in January of 1989: "For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people."
It's a principle that's always been very close to my heart -- no matter where I've been in my political journey. In fact, I was invited to join the board by Ray Chambers, who was Points of Light's founding chairman. After achieving success in business, he turned his remarkable skills and passion toward finding solutions to problems all over the world.
While serving on the board, the offshoot that I began working with was called Family Matters, a program that encouraged families to discover the benefits of volunteering together. I had seen those benefits in a very real way in my own family. One of the places I would take my daughters to volunteer when we lived in Washington, D.C. was Children of Mine, a community center in Anacostia for children who had nowhere to go after school. On one occasion, shortly after my daughter Isabella's fifth birthday party, we went to the center, and there was another little girl who was turning five. The sum total of her birthday celebration was one chocolate chip cookie. From the corner of my eye, I could see Isabella tearing up. When we returned home, she gathered up every single present she had been given and insisted that we take them back to the little girl at the center.
There are so many forces that divide us from one another. And with the increasing presence of technology, families can easily drift apart, even while in the same room. Volunteering is a force that can bridge those divides and strengthen families at the same time. The idea is to make volunteering a first-level option for families when they're deciding what to do -- right in the mix along with movies, going out to eat and Little League.
The recipients of the 5,000th award are Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton from Union, Iowa, who, instead of retiring after a lifetime of farming, decided to fight hunger in the U.S. and in more than 15 countries by creating a nonprofit that delivers free meals to children.
You can be a daily point of light in your own way. As John Bridgeland wrote in his book, "Heart of the Nation: Volunteering and America's Civic Spirit," volunteerism has always been the "connective tissue that ensures our country remains the land of opportunity for all." Bridgeland, who was a senior aide in the Bush 43 administration, is now co-chair, along with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of the Franklin Project, which aims to create a system of voluntary civilian national service.
Bridgeland also notes the many neuroscience studies that are increasingly confirming the truth that humans have an innate instinct to reach out and connect through giving of themselves. But this impulse is like a muscle -- it needs to be strengthened through regular exercise.
Our leaders in Washington are not the only manifestation of our civic spirit. They may be, for the time being, at least, hopelessly polarized, but our representatives are not actually very representative. And volunteering is the ultimate in bipartisanship.
Our political leaders can have a big effect on volunteering. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps; JFK, the Peace Corps; Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps -- every president has seen the importance of volunteering.
But volunteering, in turn, has the power to change our politics. So if you're frustrated by the lack of solutions in Washington, you can create your own small solution in your community.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ARIANNA HUFFINGTON