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The White House

Remarks by The First Lady at the YouthBuild 30th Anniversary event


Office of the First Lady
For Immediate Release                             March 17, 2009


National Mall
Washington, D.C.
10:52 A.M. EDT

MRS. OBAMA:  So, what is it, morning?  Good morning!

AUDIENCE:  Good morning!

MRS. OBAMA:  Man, YouthBuild.  Let's hear it again.  Good morning!

AUDIENCE:  Good morning!

MRS. OBAMA:  I'm so proud of you.  You all sit down and rest your feet.  I know you all have been working hard. 

I want to thank Dorothy for her introduction, for her hard work.  Congratulations on this wonderful day.  Happy anniversary, YouthBuild.  (Applause.)

I know how proud Dorothy must be to be standing here today.  Thirty years of anything is an amazing feat.  But walking through these displays and talking to some of the most intelligent, focused, knowledgeable young people, you know, that makes me proud, it should make this country proud, and I know you've made Dorothy very proud.  And I am so excited to be here to share this with you.  (Applause.)  

The work you've done here is quite impressive, and the evolution of your work to include green building, something that we're talking more and more about as a nation, energy-saving practices, and environmental awareness, it demonstrates how YouthBuild has endured as a leading non-profit organization, keeping up with the times, making sure that the training and education that you get is current.

However, for me, it's your core principle that I am so impressed with, of providing opportunities for amazing young people -- amazing young people -- (applause) -- giving folks a second, and third, and fourth chance, particularly low-income youth.  Sometimes we overlook them, we think that they can't be, they can't do.  And it's places like YouthBuild that help you to find yourselves and to be reborn in so many ways, and to help rebuild communities all across this country, but to also complete high school and to graduate, and to do some really special things.  (Applause.)

And this message, the message of YouthBuild, is so important:  Participating in national and community service is not just an escape for the wealthy or for those students who can afford it -- which is something that I couldn't do growing up.  I didn't come into an understanding of community service until after I had graduated from law school and had to think about what I wanted to do.  I couldn't afford to take off time to do an internship. 

Community service is an integral part of empowering our people and making our communities stronger.  And service must become a part of each of our lives.  It has to be an integral part of each of our lives if we're going to create a more unified nation that we all want and that our President talks so much about.

You may know a little bit about the President, Barack Obama, and myself.  (Applause.)  But when Dorothy said that we understand -- I said throughout the campaign, Barack Obama gets it.  He gets it because he's lived it.  He started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.  I was impressed with that.  (Applause.)

And he's very proud of the work that he did to bring the community together there on the South Side to help register voters, and to bring new jobs to neighborhoods that had lost them, and to help people live with a little bit of dignity.  He's proud of that work.  He will tell you that's the most important part of his own training and development.

Through this work he came to realize he wasn't just helping other people.  As you've learned, through service he found a community that embraced him -- and I know you all understand that.  You find people who love you and believe in you.  That's what he found.  He found a church to belong to through his work in communities.  And he found his own direction, a direction that would bring him to where he is today, the President of the United States of America.  (Applause.)

And all of that came through service, giving, contributing.  I too found my life enriched when I left my job at a corporate law firm.  I thought that was the best thing I'd ever do, making a lot of money in a corporate firm in Chicago.  But it wasn't until I stepped away from the corporate track and worked in city government and eventually helped to found the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program, a national service program, that I realized how important public service and community service was to my own development. 

And now that the two of us have moved to Washington, our new home -- (applause) -- we both have continued to stress the value of national and community service by honoring the hard work of public servants right here in D.C. in our federal agencies. 

All across this nation we rely on those workers who work hard here every day.  And one of the things that I've tried to do to honor their work is to visit them in their agencies to thank them, to also spend time in various community-based programs throughout the D.C. area, to highlight that work and to show them our gratitude and appreciation.  For us, that's what it means to be a part of a community -- that you come in, you listen, and you learn from those who have been there. 

For the last 16 years, the Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes AmeriCorps, has enabled millions of Americans to strengthen their neighborhoods and to help tackle some of the nation's most intractable problems.

And during the campaign, Barack laid out a plan to expand these programs.  The plan called upon Americans from all walks of life to take part in civic renewal and serve their communities, and he made a commitment to promise to build the infrastructure that will enable them to do that.  

And if you remember, during the transition -- we're still transitioning -- he enlisted Colin Powell in a bipartisan call to service.  We also set up a website to link people to service opportunities, and the President participated in a nationally televised public service announcement.  We also teamed up with service organizations and the Corporation for National and Community Service to draw attention to Martin Luther King Day of Service that produced record participation.

More than 13,000 projects took place, and that more than doubled last year's record of 5,000 projects.  This historic turnout is the largest ever in the 14 years since Congress encouraged Americans to observe the King Holiday as a national day of service.  And that's something we can all be proud of, because I know YouthBuild was in the middle of that work.  (Applause.)  

We were humbled not only by the numbers of people, but by their diversity.  Elementary school students serving alongside retirees -- that's a beautiful site, something that we regularly want to see happen. 

Perhaps Martin Luther King said it best.  He said, "Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve … you only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."

Research shows that this generation of young people is one of the most socially conscious and active, with 61 percent of 13- to 25-year-olds saying they feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world.  That is you.  (Applause.)

And that's true for all young people.  Those with work experience are also making a difference.  There are some very poignant stories in the news right now of working Americans who have been laid off, spending time volunteering, not wasting away, not bemoaning their fate, but instead getting connected to communities through service, network, bonding, sharing their experiences.  That's what's going on today among young people, even those who are struggling to find jobs themselves -- they're volunteering.

And as we stand here today, Congress is taking steps to strengthen and expand national service programs for Americans of all ages and all walks of life.  The Serve America and GIVE Acts that are up will enable millions of Americans to serve their communities and help meet the nation's greatest challenges.

Thanks to the leadership of Chairman Mitchell [sic], and Congresswoman McCarthy, the House is ready to pass legislation that moves us closer to our goal.  And Chairman Kennedy, Senators Hatch, Mikulski and Enzi are championing a similar effort in committee this week in the Senate. 

And I want to thank them right here and now for their efforts, because without them, we wouldn't be at this point, this bipartisan group, because of their appreciation, their willingness to put themselves out there, understanding of the value of the work that you've done. 

And know your part in this is that they've seen programs like this in action.  They've seen young people coming out of programs like this, making a better way for themselves and adding value to the community.  It's because of this work potentially that this legislation will get passed.  So you should give yourselves a hand.  (Applause.)

At a time in our nation when so many are struggling, we have to remember that everyone can make a difference and that we all have something to contribute. 

I want to congratulate you for your anniversary.  Thank you all for what you do to improve our communities, to improve yourselves.  Just keep up the good work.  Stay focused, stay true to yourselves, and know that this is just the beginning.  This is just the beginning. 

When you leave YouthBuild, you're going to come across the highs and the lows of life, and not everything is going to work out as planned.  But know that you have this wonderful foundation -- the things that you've learned, the relationships that you've built -- you can fall back on.  Reach out to your mentors, your instructors, your leaders.  Know that we -- none of us survive without a community of support and networking.

So as you step out there and begin to build the lives that you know you can build, never get set back by a little bump in the road.  Just stay focused on what you've learned during your time here at YouthBuild.  And know that it will lead you to the kind of success and happiness you all deserve. 

Thank you so much, and congratulations.  (Applause.)

11:06 A.M. EDT