A call to action that every American can answer
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This month, America celebrates volunteerism. As Americans we have a deep passion for serving our country, communities, and one another. The fundamental importance of service to our nation was reinforced by the White House a couple of weeks ago when President Biden proclaimed April 18-24 National Volunteer Week.

While the president called upon all Americans to “volunteer at service projects across the country and pledge to make service a part of their daily lives,” nonprofit organizations like Operation Gratitude continued to act, providing countless opportunities for Americans of all ages and walks of life to give back in tangible ways.

In the week leading up to the president’s proclamation, with the help of tens of thousands of volunteers nationwide, our organization impacted more than 20,000 deployed service members and their families around the world, as well as frontline responders here at home. With our actions we made our own statement about the resolve of our volunteers to continue serving those who serve in the wake of the administration’s announcement about the drawdown in Afghanistan.

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Hundreds of Americans in Philadelphia, New York City, Arlington, and Jacksonville did exactly what the President envisioned — and what Operation Gratitude has been doing for the past 18 years — they stepped forward to serve. Standing side by side, civilians, military, veterans, and first responders renewed a sense of community and created common ground, uniting people from different backgrounds and seeing one another in a similar light.

On April 13, 30 volunteers served alongside the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments to positively impact 900 health care heroes and every 911 dispatcher serving the community. One hospital administrator said, “you have no idea how much we need this right now.” The very next day 40 volunteers in New York City assembled 3,000 care packages that were delivered to every police officer serving 16 NYPD precincts in north Manhattan, where a former Navy Corpsman said the challenges he and his fellow police officers faced over the past year were similar to what he experienced with Marines on an extended combat deployment.

Dozens more volunteers came together outside a Starbucks in northern Virginia to assemble care packages for service members, veterans and National Guardsmen in the DMV. Civilians stood side by side in service with Arlington Police and Fire Departments and local military families. A similar scene played out in Jacksonville where volunteers showed their gratitude to 140 active duty service members at a vaccination site and, with the help of CSX, served 60 military kids whose parents have been deployed for a second time in less than a year.

Operation Gratitude is not alone in its effort to strengthen communities through service despite pandemic and civil unrest. There are a number of nonprofits, like The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon, whose missions enable opportunities for veterans to serve in communities. Both have joined forces with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Student Veterans of America (SVA), Team RWB, and Wounded Warrior Project to create the Veterans Coalition for Vaccination. Together, they are aiding local and state officials in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine nationwide, and “working toward the common goal of ensuring each American who wants the vaccine has equitable access to it.”

The need for nonprofits along with the public and private sectors to give more Americans opportunities to serve is among several important points President BidenJoe BidenBiden says Beau's assessment of first 100 days would be 'Be who you are' Biden: McCarthy's support of Cheney ouster is 'above my pay grade' Conservative group sues over prioritization of women, minorities for restaurant aid MORE emphasized in his proclamation. He called on Americans to act — right now — to put empathy, resilience, and hope for the future on display, despite the challenges that have wreaked havoc on our nation over the past year.

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There’s an opportunity to press in when our country needs it most rather than retreating. The issues we face demand action and the only way to move past them is to move through them, hand-in-hand (if only figuratively during a pandemic) and steeped in the tough conversations and concrete action it will take to make a real and lasting difference.

Despite all that threatens to divide us, we are more strongly united by a common bond of service. Though our differences may be plenty, there exists in so many of us a desire to make an impact, to leave a mark on this world that proves that the human connection isn’t reliant upon race, religion, color, or experience. In fact, it’s that diversity that makes us stronger and more capable. Volunteerism is about actively listening to and identifying the needs of others and then asking “What can I bring to the table?” Serving together and one another will build and restore communities more quickly than any other unifying factor.

Now more than ever, it’s an all hands on deck effort to get our nation to the other side of what may appear an impossible divide. Every American, from the individual to the largest, most powerful corporation has the ability, and some might even say responsibility, to take a step in getting us there. A challenge like never before demands equal levels of action, innovation, and commitment.

What’s encouraging is that we each already possess what we need to be a difference-maker. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. The time, talent, or treasure we give can — and should — be unique from person to person. John C. Maxwell coined the adage “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and though perhaps overused, the sentiment holds true. Rather than daunting, the call to give how and where we can should be empowering. It will require our many parts to restore the whole.

Kevin M. Schmiegel is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who now serves as the president and chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, a national 501c3 nonprofit.