President Clinton's remarks on the Peace Corps and Americorps

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President Clinton's remarks on the Peace Corps and Americorps

President Clinton's remarks on the Peace Corps and Americorps

President Clinton's remarks on the Peace Corps and Americorps

February 10, 1999


Richie Coliseum
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

2:34 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentlemen, when I was listening to Stephen and Leslie and Justin and Pepe talk, I was reminded of why I wanted to be President -- so that I could give young people like them the chance to make America a better place. (Applause.)

I want to thank all those who are here today who have supported our efforts. I thank Harris Wofford for his outstanding leadership of the Corporation of National Service. (Applause.) Deb Jospin and John Gomperts of AmeriCorps. I thank Governor Glendening and Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for making Maryland America's leading state for citizen service. They have really done -- (applause.) I thank my good friend, Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry; Senator Mike Miller, my longtime friend; and Mayor Jacobs, thank you for making us welcome. Carson Dailey, thank you for the work MTV did on those wonderful spots, the PSAs.

I would like to thank also the mother of the Lt. Governor, my good friend, Ethel Kennedy, for being here today. (Applause.) And I thank Mark Gearan, our Peace Corps Director, and I'll say a little more about the Peace Corps in a minute and its relationship to AmeriCorps.

I'd like to thank one person who is not here today, but who was on the front lines of creating AmeriCorps, Senator Barbara Mikulski, your United States Senator from Maryland. I thank her. (Applause.) I want to thank the President of the University of Maryland, on my right; and the President of the Student Government of the University of Maryland, on my left -- (applause) -- for making me welcome. Avery and Dr. Mote, thank you. (Applause.)

You have already heard from Dr. Mote and others that six years ago I came here to celebrate the end of the Summer of Service, which was our dry run for this national service program. We wanted to work out the kinks and see whether we could make this idea go. There were three people who are here who were instrumental on that day; I would like to thank them: Georgia Sorensen, Marilyn Smith and my former White House staffer, whom I miss very much, Bill Galstone. Thank you all very much for what you have done. (Applause.)

And I thank the University of Maryland for the College Park Scholars, the Team Maryland Athletes -- (applause) -- the work-study students that are tutoring, and the others from the students and faculty who demonstrate the power of citizen service.

Let me say to all of you, when I ran for President in 1992 I wanted to get America working again and moving again, but I also wanted to bring America together again. It seemed to me that we had two great problems. One is that our economy was not functioning very well and we seemed to be getting weaker, but also that we seemed to be letting our divisions overcome what we have in common.

Martin Luther King once said that the old law of an eye for an eye sooner or later leaves everyone blind. I always believed that America's differences could be the source of our strength if we respected and we celebrated our differences, but we understood that, underneath it all, there was something that bound us together that was more important.

So, as I look back on the last six years, I think we can all take a great deal of pride in what our country has achieved together -- economically, the longest peacetime expansion in history; the lowest peacetime unemployment rate since 1957, 42 years ago -- (applause) -- welfare rolls cut nearly in half; the lowest crime rate in over a quarter-century. I think those are great things.

But I think we can also celebrate the evidence that we are coming together -- over 90 percent of our children across all racial and ethnic lines immunized against serious childhood diseases for the first time in history; the doors of college literally open to all with the HOPE scholarship, the lifetime learning tax credit, the more generous Pell grant, more affordable student loans, more work-study slots. Those things matter.

But maybe most of all, those of you here in Americorps, and those in citizen service -- whether in the Peace Corps, serving our country in the military, or serving in some other way -- embody the determination of America to draw closer together as we grow more diverse. And that, I think, is terribly important.

When you saw the four Americorps volunteers up here speaking, and each of you identifying with them in turn -- if they worked in your project or you knew them -- you know they were a picture of America, of the changing face of America, and the best of America that never changes.

If you look around the world today, at many of the challenges that I face as your President and that the United States faces -- the sad trip that the First Lady and I recently took to Jordan for the funeral of our friend, the King of Jordan, who survived decades of assassination attempts -- literally decades of assassination attempts, probably 50 in all -- to stand as a symbol of peace among people in a very tough neighborhood, who use religion as a reason to find their differences more important than their common humanity. All over the world today you see that. If the United States wants to lead the world toward peace and freedom and prosperity in a new century in a new millennium, it is actually quite an advantage for us to have within our borders people from all races, all religions, all ethnic groups, all cultural backgrounds doing all kinds of different things.

But we cannot do good around the world unless we are good at home. And, therefore, we have to find this magical balance, being honest about our differences of opinion on matters from the serious to the mundane -- and I'll leave it to you to decide whether it was serious or mundane when the President asked me take sides in the basketball game. (Laughter.) You've got a great team here, though, I'll tell you that, I've watched it. (Applause.) We have to find a way to do that, to say, this is what I believe, this is where I stand, this is what I'm for -- and also to say how lucky we are to stand on the verge of a new millennium in a totally global society, where people are being brought closer together than ever before, and we are finding ways to relish, to celebrate, to honor our differences in a way to bring us closer together, instead of driving us apart.

AmeriCorps is the living, breathing symbol of the answer to that. Where we do not ask people to check their differences at the door, but we do ask them to reaffirm our common humanity. We do not ask for a handout, but we do ask for a hand up for everyone who needs it, and we say we are going forward together. That is what you represent. That is my fondest hope for America. And I thank you for your service. (Applause.)

You know, all during the 20th century, the tradition of citizen service grew stronger in America. In the great Depression I remember my parents telling me about the chance President Roosevelt gave able-bodied, unemployed people to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps -- the CCC. They cleared trails, they fought fires, they planted trees. They built whole state parks -- the Appalachian Trail, Skyline Drive in Virginia; parks in my home state that Hillary and I have stayed in, with rather interesting names like Petit Jean, and Devil's Den. I have in the back office of the White House an old CCC cap -- a cap that one of the volunteers wore in the '30s, that I found wedged in between a chimney and a wall, in a cabin in a state park in the mountains of north Arkansas. And I have kept it with me all these long years, to remember the unifying power of citizen service in one of the most difficult moments of the 20th century for the United States.

President Kennedy in the 1960s asked young people to serve in the Peace Corps -- to teach English, to provide health care, to bring running water and electricity to some of the most remote villages in Africa, Asia and South America. My brother-in-law served in the Peace Corps in Colombia. And the other night, he was getting together with some of the people who served there with him. When we were getting ready to come out here today, and Senator Wofford came in with Mark Gearan, the present Peace Corps Director, we were celebrating the fact that, if our new budget passes, we will have more people serving in the Peace Corps in the next two years than have ever served in any given year. We'll be back at an all-time high.

And we were lamenting the fact that we just had to withdraw our Peace Corps volunteers from Eritrea and Ethiopia, two countries that I have felt particularly close to in the last couple of years, because of the trouble the two countries are having -- the threat to go to war. And the Peace Corps volunteers, going all the way back for decades, have volunteered to try to come in and solve the conflict and deal with the disputed area of land. I don't know if they will accept it, but think of that. All these years later, people that were there years and years and years ago remember what it was like -- not to give a handout, but to give a hand up, and to ask people to understand that their differences are not as important as what they have in common.

So I thank our Peace Corps volunteers, I thank Mark Gearan, and I thank all of you in AmeriCorps, because you are in the rich tradition of America's citizen service, from the CCC to the Peace Corps to AmeriCorps. Now, six summers after I first came here, AmeriCorps is thriving. There now have been over 100,000 people serve in AmeriCorps in just four years of the full-time program. Everywhere I go around the country I see you -- I see you in all kinds of different contexts. I was in San Jose right before the election and there were a lot of -- the Peace Corps volunteers had just come to start their mission, and so I saw them standing on the street as I pulled into the hotel. And I asked them all to come see me and we took a little picture -- and they were from everywhere.

And then when I went home to Arkansas after the terrible tornadoes a couple of weeks ago, in both the communities I visited there were AmeriCorps volunteers there and there were people there who, believe me, would never have come to Arkansas in their lives if they hadn't been in AmeriCorps. (Laughter.) I know it was good for the people they were helping and I think it was pretty good for them.

This has been an astonishing encounter for tens of thousands of people. Now, all of you know what it's like -- I love talking to people who have been in AmeriCorps because I always hear two things -- number one, they're proud of what they did to help people -- teaching a child to read, or immunizing a child, or having a playground that's safe in an area that used to be dominated by gangs, or cleaning up some polluted site, or doing something to preserve the environment. I love that.

The second thing I always here is, "I like the people with whom I serve;" "I met people I never would have met;" "I got to know people I never would have gotten to know;" "we were all so different and, yet, when we worked together, we grew together, and it made my life different and better." That is what AmeriCorps needs to do -- and that is what America needs to do.

America needs to think of itself as sort of a giant AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps at home, getting things done together. Getting things done together. (Applause.) If our budget passes this fall, we can boost the number of AmeriCorps volunteers by one quarter, to 50,000 members. In our new budget we want to keep expanding AmeriCorps every year so that by the year 2003, and there forward, every year 100,000 young people will be serving in AmeriCorps. (Applause.)

But I want to challenge the young people of this country -- and the not so young who are willing to do it -- to sign up for AmeriCorps, to see for yourselves what you can do to solve America's problems and reap America's promise. I want to challenge high school students, as well. Maryland has done a wonderful job as the Governor and the Lt. Governor said, being the only state in the country to actually require community service as a part of a public education. In our balanced budget we propose to allow high schoolers for the very first time to join AmeriCorps by serving part-time during the school year and full-time in the summers.

And I want to challenge, again, the young people beyond this room, to dedicate a year or two of your lives to a cause larger than yourselves. It may be your best chance to change the lives of others for the better, and to enrich your own life in the process.

Today, so many young people have the time and freedom and energy they will never have in the future, to tackle the kind of challenge Americorps represents -- to pack a bag at a moment's notice, to fight a forest fire, or move into our most remote

towns or Native American reservations to teach children, or work with churches in some of our toughest neighborhoods. At the end of your service, as all of you know, Americorps will provide help to pay for college or pay off student loans. So I ask you all to help me reach others -- to take advantage of this opportunity, to use this moment to prove that this generation of young people, far from being a generation of cynics and slackers, is instead a generation of doers and patriots. (Applause.)

Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend quoted something her father said. I would like to close with a quotation from Senator Robert Kennedy, in a speech he gave to college students in South Africa when I was a young man. It resonated around the world, and every person my age, which was then your age now -- every young person I knew, without regard to their party or their opinions or anything else, was riveted by the notion that a United States Senator could go to South Africa and talk to the young people about building a different future, a long time before, for the first time in over 300 years, all South Africans had a chance to choose their future.

This is what he said: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

That is still true today. For those in AmeriCorps, I thank you for sending forth those ripples of hope. I thank you for bringing out the best in yourselves and others.

For those who could still yet serve, I ask you to join the rest of your fellow citizens in building that bridge to the 21st century that all can walk across, arm-in-arm, to the best days of America.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)

AmeriCorps: A Call To Service

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