Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a White House Reception for Participants in the Youth Volunteer Conference

November 12, 1982

The President. Well, thank you, and welcome to the White House. I can think of no one that I would rather visit here with than you.

Young Americans are already doing so much to make this country a better place to live. Seeing all of you here today certainly disproves the old army myth, "never volunteer." [Laughter]

I hope you feel comfortable here. This is your house as much as mine. It's our national home. This white mansion and the gleaming marble monuments that we have in the city here represent the ideals of generations of young people before you. If you're inspired by the great marble monuments of Washington and identify with the passion behind the inscriptions, well, that's as it should be. Those monuments, this city, and this country are dedicated to you in a belief that you'll reach for the stars and lift mankind to even greater heights.

Every generation sees farther than the previous generation because it stands on the shoulders of those who went before. Seeing you today and knowing of the energy and dedication you bring to the American volunteer spirit, I know our nation will only become stronger and greater when you are leading us.

Most of you are members of the national volunteer organizations, I understand, and I'm sure you understand the importance of helping others in these difficult times. But you may not be aware that volunteering is an old American tradition. We've always been a country of neighbors dependent on one another. A strong, cooperative community spirit is the heart and soul of our democracy and the key to our quality of life. Your efforts at this national youth volunteer meeting and the projects that you will tackle afterward have a great potential for enriching that American spirit.

I sat here at dinner one night, in one of the state dinners, and had someone from another country, which I won't name. I was talking about something to do with our voluntarism program bill, and this person said, "Well, yes, you can here in America." And I was kind of curious, and then what she was frankly admitting was that not in very many places in the world but this one do we have that spirit where we get together and do something voluntarily and have those kind of programs.

By improving the recruitment and recognition of youth volunteers, you could greatly increase their impact on community welfare. With better communication and cooperation, you could bring about even greater and more dramatic results. My challenge to you young people here today is to return to your hometowns with a special mission-initiate a collaborative program similar to the Washington, D.C., Youth Volunteer Fair and then keep me informed of how you do, If we can start those fairs in cities and towns across America, the momentum of youth building a better tomorrow will in, spire all our citizens to join in the renewal

There's an old Irish proverb that says, "Praise youth, and it will prosper." Well, my praise for you today comes from my heart, and I hope it will encourage you to work even harder for even greater goals.

Now, I hope that praise and recognition for all our young volunteers will be a byproduct of this meeting. But more than anything, I hope to encourage your ideals,' and dreams so they'll grow with you and America will prosper. And when we're congratulating our younger volunteers, we mustn't forget the adults who have guided you and guided this young people project into an active leadership role.

Many of these exceptional adults are with us today, and they're pretty easily identified. [Laughter] But I would like to give special thanks to Frank Pace and Bill Bricker, the members of the Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, who have devoted so much time and energy on behalf of you young volunteers. And Bill Verity 1 tells me that voluntarism is being successfully promoted across the country from youth to senior citizens, and you're all proof of that. And to help tell the story to the policymakers, I understand the Private Sector Initiatives Task Force has produced a publication entitled "Volunteers—A Valuable Resource," which I look forward to reading.

1 Chairman of the President's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives.

Now, I know that many of you young people have written letters to me about your volunteer experiences, and the Task Force has shared some of those comments with me. I'd like to read a couple of them.

Karen Edwards, member of the Jamestown Girls Club in Jamestown, New York, wrote, "The satisfaction I receive from my volunteering far exceeds the amount of my weekly paycheck from my job at Super-Duper Markets. The satisfaction that I receive as a volunteer is simply seeing the joy in the girls' faces when I'm there for them to reach out to me."

And Sidney Ridley, member of the YMCA in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote, "Earlier this year I participated in the Love Run for multiple sclerosis, and I enjoyed doing this very much, because the idea behind this cause was so very close to me and my family because of my mother's illness. I ran 104 miles and was able to collect about $32 for this very worthy cause. Working with other underprivileged kids has been a most rewarding experience, and I feel that if I'm of any help to them, which I feel I am, I will have served to help my country and the world."

You know, I have to tell you just a little-and briefly as I can—a little, poignant story of the opposite way. And it made me think that maybe we ought to have billboards of this kind up all over the country. It was one of those nights in California in the storm season, and down at Newport Beach the homes along the beach there were being destroyed, washed away by the high tides and the waves that were breaking against them. And the TV stations from the community were down there getting this, and it was 2 o'clock in the morning. I was still watching TV, because they were getting this, and you were seeing damage that was being done, but you were seeing the volunteers working throughout the night to sandbag these homes and try to save them.

And at one point, 2 o'clock in the morning-and it gets cold in California at night-California's the only place in the world where you can fall asleep under a rosebush in full bloom and freeze to death— [laughter] —and this lad was still in his swimming trunks. And he was wet, and he was cold and had to be tired, and he was still lugging sandbags. And one of the commentators caught him, got him in front of the camera. Did he live in one of these houses? No, he didn't live there at the beach. And finally the question came, well, why, why was he doing this? And the answer was so poignant-and you've already found the answer and supplied it. He said, "Well"—he stopped for a second, "Well," he said, "I guess it's the first time any of us ever felt we were needed." Well, you are needed, and there's no limit to what you can do.

I thank you for coming here today, for lifting my spirits. And I'm sure my spirits will be lifted even more after I read the additional letters from the volunteers, which I understand you have for me today. I thank you for the work that you've done, the work that you're going to do. I wish you good luck, and God bless you.

And now I bet at one time in your life you've said, "If I could only ask him a question, I'd like to know .... "And I don't have too much time, because I understand we're going out there and I'm going to have a chance to meet each one of you individually. But, you have—

Q. Mr. President?

The President. What?

Q. Mr. President, on behalf of the Youth Volunteers, we're presenting you with letters and thoughts on the importance of voluntarism.

The President. Thank you very much. And I guarantee you—and people on my staff know this is true—I'll read them-every one. I thank you very much for this.

And now if we do for a few minutes have a little time and someone wants to ask a question—you do? Fire away.

Q. I'm Angela Williams from Nashville, Tennessee, and in every respect follow your administration around from the previous ones that I've seen. And I just want to know how we as volunteers can carry out this dignity into America and enable it to spread?

The President. Now, carry out

Q. Carry the dignity of your administration out and enable it to spread in our volunteer work?

The President. Well, I thank you very much for saying that we have a dignity to do that. [Laughter] But I think it is carrying on what you do, because that is one of the characteristics that I believe in and believe this country has and that we were in danger and have been in danger of losing, is drifting into a belief that, well, government would do it all, that we didn't need to do things voluntarily. And if you carry on with that, and as far as dignity's concerned, that goes with what we have the most of of any country in the world, it is the dignity of individual freedom, the dignity of the individual that he is supreme.

You know, I've read a lot of constitutions. I guess every country's got a constitution. I've read the Soviet Constitution. I don't think they have. But I have. [Laughter] And there's a difference. Maybe this isn't true of all of them. But let me just tell you one great difference that spells out just what you are talking about and which goes with the dignity of being free.

Almost all of the constitutions—or all of them that I've seen—of other countries say, here are the things that the government allows the people to do. And our Constitution says, we the people will allow the Government to do the following things. Our Constitution is our bill of particulars that says to the Government, these are the only things you can do. And if they aren't in here, you can't do them. And it's a very unique thing. And we should always remember it.

Someone else? Oh, there, and then I'll come back here.

Q. Mr. President, my name is Patrick O'Donnell. I'm a Red Cross volunteer from New York. I was wondering if you could give us just one message for all of us here to bring back to our communities to help us promote voluntarism—just one short, simple message.

The President. Oh, my. [Laughter] I was trying to do that in so many pages here. [Laughter]

Well, yes. It is that these volunteer efforts can do it so much more efficiently—the things that you're doing—so much more effectively than government can, that it isn't a case of waiting for government to do it. But take a look at the neighborhood, the community, the thing that needs doing, and then find out how you can enlist people to do this.

More than a hundred years ago, a Frenchman visited this country. And when he went home, he wrote to his fellow Frenchmen about what he had seen here. And he said that the thing that he noticed was—he said, "You know, in America someone sees a problem that needs solving. And they cross the street and talk to a neighbor about it. And the first thing you know, a committee is formed." And he said, "Finally, the problem is being solved." And he said, "You won't believe this. But not a single bureaucrat had anything to do with it." [Laughter]

You take that one home.

Yes, and then I'll come to you. Yes? I'll come straight across.

Q. My name is Orlando Vega. I'm from Denver, Colorado, with the Boys Clubs of Denver. And I was wondering—we've been talking about voluntarism and everything like this. But I want to know exactly what have you done in terms of volunteer work over your life. And I was wondering what exactly has it meant, personally, to you.

The President. Well, as far back as I go— [laughter] —it's a varied experience. And when I was in Hollywood and in the motion picture industry, I was an officer and a member of our guild, the Screen Actors Guild, for some 25 years and 6 times its president. And, unlike a lot of union officers, in our guild, you served for free. It was a volunteer effort.

But I've also, been connected with many of the worthwhile and the charitable efforts. And, frankly, I think, also, the job I've got right now is a kind of a volunteer job. [Laughter] But the reward for it—but then I was raised to believe in the principle of tithing, and believe in giving of yourself, as well as whatever material resources you have. And I think it was summed up better than I can say it by a man who spent his entire life with the Salvation Army. He said, "Life begins when you begin to serve." And I think that I believe that, and believe it has for me.

Mr. Moorhead. 2 Mr. President, last question; and then we have to volunteer to take some pictures. [Laughter]

The President. Oh.

2 J. Upsbur Moorhead, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the President's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives.

Q. Mr. President, I am Donnette Silva from the Future Business Leaders of America in Fresno, California. And I know that you have a lot of goals and dreams for our country. Is there one goal that we, as youth volunteers, can help you accomplish?

The President. Yes, and it is in this very overall thing. Oh, there are lots of goals and things that, I mean, are part of my job that we have to get done. We have to restore the economy. We've got to solve this tragic problem of the extensive unemployment in our land. But I think the real goal is summed up in getting back to the very thing that Bill Verity is heading up for us, as a volunteer himself, this private initiative thing, where we find all the areas that are out there and the things that can be done, and that don't call for a gigantic bureaucracy or a government program, because those, somehow—there isn't the heart in it, done that way, that there is when it is neighbor to neighbor. And to see America seek out and solve these problems for itself—if we could get back to that, I would feel that I had accomplished a great deal if we had that in our country.

We once had it. When I was your age and younger, growing up, the things that we heard about—when World War I ended, we went to the aid of the stricken countries, both enemies and friends. And a man named Hoover headed that commission up as a citizen volunteer, and it was a volunteer effort. We fed the hungry of the world. When the great earthquake destroyed Tokyo, again, it was America to the rescue, and it wasn't done by a government program. It was done by volunteers.

When I was a young man as a sports announcer in radio, just starting, I remember doing, I guess, what must have been the first—it wasn't a telethon then; it was a radiothon—all night at our radio station out in Iowa, because in Ohio the floods had done such damage. And we were raising money, and it was the volunteers who came in and a volunteer effort for restoring what had been done there.

The feeding of the hungry and the famines in India and other places in the world—again, it was the volunteers, and it was a volunteer movement that just sprung from the grass roots of America. We just assumed it was our obligation to move and do something for those others.

And if we could remember one thing: When World War II ended and it looked like maybe we could have been falling into another Dark Ages, Pope Pius XII in Rome said, "God has placed the fate of an afflicted mankind in the hands of America, and America is known and is capable of great and generous deeds." In fact, he said we had a genius for those deeds. Well, by this time we were beginning to do it kind of governmentwise with the Marshall plan and so forth.

But let's keep that spirit alive of what that lady told me here at that dinner, that we are the most generous people on Earth, and we must never lose that.

I know I've taken too much time. And I have to go down the hall, and then you're going to come down the hall, and we're going to have our pictures taken.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 3 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a White House Reception for Participants in the Youth Volunteer Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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