Before the Partying Begins, a Day of Service

Americans around the nation honor Obama and King by giving back. 

Posted: 01/19/2013 04:41 PM EST
Left to Right: Jonathan Nindorea, Shu Kuyaka, Abdoul Miga

Left to Right: Jonathan Nindorea, Shu Kuyaka and Abdoul Miga (Photo: Joyce Jones/BET.com)

Hundreds of people packed a tent at the National Mall to answer President Obama's call to kick off their inauguration celebrations by serving others on Saturday. The White House also sees it as a way to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday is traditionally recognized with volunteer activities. Obama is the first president to formally make a National Day of Service a part of the inauguration festivities.

"This is really what America is about, this is what we celebrate," Obama said at Burrville Elementary, where he and First Lady Michelle Obama fulfilled their day of service commitment. "This inauguration, it's a symbol of how our democracy works and how we peacefully transfer power, but it should also be an affirmation that we're all in this together, and we've got to look out for each other, and we've got to work hard on behalf of each other."

That sentiment is what drove Virginia resident Sharita Cooper, an accountant, to the Mall. In addition to writing letters to veterans as a tribute to her father, who is a veteran, and decorating bookplates for kids, she pledged to volunteer throughout the coming year.

"It feels good to give back and it's also something I feel I need to do," she told BET.com. "I need to make a contribution to society just for me as a person because it keeps me grounded and thinking about the big picture of life, why we're here and God's purpose for us."

Dozens of nonprofit organizations were gathered under the tent to sign up volunteers for service activities for the day and in the future. They included nationally based groups like Operation Hope, Goodwill and the Red Cross, as well as local organizations. Residents in cities around the nation also participated in local service activities. Everyone was encouraged to make a pledge to commit to volunteering throughout 2013.

Shu Kuyaka, 17, said that his father, a diplomat for the Republic of Cameroon, sent him to the Mall to represent. The high school senior, who will be a volunteer at an inaugural ball assisting disabled attendees, signed up to teach computer programming to young children.

"It is an honor to be here," he said, before continuing his hunt for additional opportunities.

His friend, Abdoul Miga, 18, whose father also is a diplomat, cited the war tearing apart his native Mali as a strong incentive to volunteer. Civilians in Mali are giving money, blood and whatever else they can to support their troops, he told BET.com. Volunteering stateside makes him feel like he, too, is giving back. It is a responsibility that he takes very seriously. He took the pledge and learned how to administer CPR that day.

"If you serve others, they will serve you," said Abdoul.

Alayna Reeds, a volunteer for Operation Hope, said that she understands it can be tough balancing family, work and outside activities, but she applauds Obama's efforts to foster volunteerism in America.

"You can affect change by donating to organizations, but you can also get out at the grassroots level and talk with kids, mentor someone or go to a soup kitchen and help the homeless," she said. 

How will you help?

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