Public Papers

Remarks Announcing the Youth Engaged in Service to America Initiative


You'd better watch that guy, he might be President someday. [Laughter] Well, first let me thank Mike Love and Bruce, the Beach Boys, for being with us and providing this marvelous presence and entertainment -- Robert Lamb as well. We're privileged they give of themselves to help others, and I'm just delighted that they're here with us today. I also want to thank Carissa and Dale and Michael and Ron. Thanks for sharing those stories with us, those remarkable stories.

You know, this is a wonderful sight. The guy I was sitting next to up here said, ``There's a lot of people here.'' And he's right -- a lot of people, but your problems and possibilities are as diverse as the Nation itself. But all of you share a precious inheritance because, as I see it, you are the future of America. But to understand the future, sometimes we need to look to the past. So think back for a moment with me to a small town tradition that America must never forget, a simpler time: a time when if there was trouble or a neighbor needed help every town had a way to send that message out to all the townspeople. Someone raced to the top of the townhall or the church steeple and rang a bell, and when people heard that bell, they didn't stop to ask why it was ringing, they just came -- horseback or foot, by buggy or bicycle, honking the horn of a Model T -- they just came. Whatever the problem, whoever was in need of help, they were ready to help.

And I've asked you here today, invited you to this marvelous White House lawn, because I need your help, because America needs your help. And the bells have been silent too long; so, let them ring in your hearts and across the land. And I know you're ready, whatever the problem, whoever is in need. We need you now.

And I know that Presidents have called on the young people of this country before. In time of war, our young have rushed to answer the call, to fight and die for our freedoms, if necessary. Today we're fortunate. We live in a time of peace, a time of great and growing prosperity. And there's no need for that kind of call to arms, but it is time for a call to action. It's a time of need for millions of Americans. The storm clouds of war fortunately are not on the horizon, but you and I know that the storm clouds of a different kind are gathering.

A simple fact in America today is that too many people are free falling through society with no prospect of landing on their feet. No one -- young, old, white, brown or black -- should be permitted to go through life unclaimed. You must show us how to reclaim these lives. We need you. And so, today I call on you to commit yourselves -- listen to the bells -- make it your mission to make a difference in somebody else's life.

And I don't have to tell you that youth gets blamed -- its share, and more -- for society's problems. Pick up the newspaper, turn on the television, and there's another story about youth gone wrong. You don't hear often enough about the good that you can do, the good that you already are doing. And I know better, and you know better. Your commitment can convince yourselves and your nation that you're not the problem; you are the solution.

Take a look at what's happening today, what's happening to kids like you. One-third of all victims of violent crime haven't reached their 20th birthday -- one-third. The three leading causes of death for teenagers are accidents -- many involving drugs or alcohol -- suicide, and murder. On a tragically typical day, almost 1,700 high school students drop out, over 4,000 teenagers run away from home, 2,700 become pregnant, over a dozen will take their own lives. And these aren't simply cold statistics; some of them are kids in your school, kids who live on your street. Some of them are your friends. And some of them may be about you right here today.

You heard Michael Johnson and his Big Brother, Dale. You heard Carissa and Ron. You heard their message, how much it means to know that someone cares, and how much it means to care for someone else. And you can carry that message across this country, from the inner city out to farm country and every community in between. You can let the phrase ``one-to-one'' symbolize all America's commitment to each other. And regardless of the life that you are living, there is something special about each and every one of you. And your gifts are all different, but you each have a gift that America needs, and I'm asking you to give that gift now.

You know, I've talked to hundreds of kids over the years, and my own kids growing up. And I've asked them: What is it you're looking for? What is it that you want to be? What is it that you want from life? And so many times I hear the same answer. It isn't money -- it's how you look, what kind of car you drive. You've all thought about it. You know that's not what it's all about. When it comes right down to it, what you want, what all of us want out of life, are two things: meaning and adventure. Meaning: a sense of purpose in life, to be a part of something that counts, something that matters. And adventure -- excitement -- matters, too. There are lots of ways to find adventure. Some are self-destructive, and some bring a sense of self-enrichment and satisfaction beyond belief. The choice is up to all of you. And I'm telling you today, you can find what you're looking for in helping others. If you walk this path with me, I can promise you a life full of meaning and adventure.

And that's why I've asked you all here. You represent millions like you, all across this country. That's why I'm asking you to be a part of an initiative that Mike mentioned, called Youth Engaged in Service to America, YES to America. I'm not talking about another government program. Another bureaucracy is the last thing we need -- believe me, I understand that. Youth Engaged in Service is a movement, a way of looking at life. And tomorrow I'm going up to New York to announce a nationwide initiative for national service, to encourage volunteers of all ages, all backgrounds, all abilities. But today let me tell you what YES is all about and what it's for, who it's for.

It's for young people of all ages, 5 to 25. Even the youngest of us have gifts to give. Let me ask you today. Don't worry whether it's a lot or a little; do what you can. Get in the habit of helping others, and that's one habit that you'll never ever break. And all of you have something to offer -- kids from tough neighborhoods, kids from broken homes, kids who have grown up on food stamps and hand-me-downs -- and maybe you think you've got nothing anyone wants. You're wrong. The gifts I'm talking about are more precious: your energy and experience, your time and talents -- gifts that come right here, from the heart. And if you've got the will to help, you really have all that you need.

So, first, YES is voluntary, truly voluntary. You don't need to be bribed with incentives and threatened with penalties to get engaged in community service. And that's not what the idea of service is all about anyway -- service is its own reward, satisfaction guaranteed. Didn't you feel it when those kids were talking to us a few minutes ago?

And second, serving others shouldn't be a detour on your career path. It's not something you do when you're young and then outgrow when you're a little bit older. It's a way of life, something you start when you're young and stick with it, all life long.

And third, YES means getting involved where you know you can make a difference in your own community. I want service organizations in the cities and towns where you live to open their doors, to make room for people your age to contribute.

And some of you may be saying, ``Oh, I know it, I can hear it. Mr. President, I'm ready, I'm willing, I'm able. But what can I do, what should I do?'' The fact is, you don't have to go far to find people who need your help. They're right there in your own community. There's an elderly man, facing nothing but empty days and isolation, and he needs you. There's a man who can't read, living behind a locked door of illiteracy -- that person needs you. There's a family with no home, no place to sleep -- that family needs you. There's a boy or girl less fortunate than you, without family, without a friend, without hope in the future, and they need you. I ask you, what would it be like going through life without one single friend? You can be that friend. There's a woman in a hospital bed, battling hard against her illness -- she needs you. Millions of people -- people in the cities and towns where you live -- just like them -- America needs you.

Maybe you've never been asked before. Well, I'm asking you: Say YES to America. Make a commitment: reach out a hand to people in need. Build a better future for yourselves, a better future for America.

So, listen to the sound of those bells, like long ago, ringing in the hearts of Americans across this country -- ringing in the inner city, out in farm country, and every community in between. And I ask each of you, all young people in America: Answer the call. From now on, make it your mission to serve others in need.

Thank you. Thank you for coming to the White House. God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:24 a.m. on the South Lawn at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Ron Brooks, who spoke earlier. He also referred to entertainers Mike Love, Bruce Johnson, and Robert Lamb, and volunteers Carissa Griesinger, Dale Long, and Michael Johnson.