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Biden calls Americans to volunteer on MLK Day

President-elect Joe Biden is urging Americans to give back on Monday by making a national day of service a key part of his inauguration week. 

Biden’s inaugural committee is urging Americans to participate in volunteer opportunities that are virtual or with “very limited in-person components.”

Biden and first lady-to-be Jill Biden volunteered at Philabundance, a hunger relief organization in Philadelphia. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff volunteered at Martha’s Table in the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C.

Biden’s call to action bears striking similarities to the Obama administration, which also highlighted the Martin Luther King Jr. day of service during both inaugurations. While former President Obama during his presidency promoted AmeriCorps’ mission and opportunities, President Trump has proposed eliminating AmeriCorps funding.   

In years past, Obama, his family, and then-Vice President Biden participated in community volunteer events such as completing a school makeover and packing first responder and military care kits in 2013 or painting the walls of a Washington, D.C., school in 2011. 

“President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are empathetic leaders who know the crisis millions of American families are facing. And like Dr. King, they know that we must have a shared commitment — in word and in deed — to bring the nation together in service to others,” said Presidential Inaugural Committee CEO Tony Allen in a statement. 

“One of the things that we know about volunteering is that first and foremost the No. 1 reason people serve is because someone asks them to,” AmeriCorps spokesperson Samantha Jo Warfield told The Hill about Biden’s urging Americans to service. 

AmeriCorps, the federal agency charged by Congress with leading the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service when it was created in 1994, is working with the Biden team this year to connect volunteers with opportunities to volunteer. 

“Service is something that can unite people and probably right now more than ever service is something that can help our nation meet the challenges that we’re facing,” Warfield said. “The MLK day of service is an opportunity for all of us to start at step one.”

But volunteering looks different this year amid a pandemic that has made social distancing mandatory.  

Biden’s inaugural committee, in highlighting virtual opportunities, notes that remote volunteering became a popular option in 2020, when many people were staying home due to the coronavirus. 

Catchafire, an organization and website that matches volunteers with community nonprofits, reports that virtual volunteer sign-ups nearly tripled from 2019 to 2020. 

That comes during a year when the economy stumbled and many nonprofits are struggling under a lack of resources. 

AmeriCorps trends still indicate that people stepped up to volunteer in large numbers during the pandemic, but circumstances caused people to find innovative ways to serve. Food banks, which still require in-person volunteers, had to think through ways to spread people out during their work. Young people stepped up to take the place of older volunteers who are more at-risk from the virus.

“People have found ways to create their own service; nonprofits have found ways to adapt their service to be virtual,” Warfield said, noting that volunteering at schools — one of the most common ways people volunteer — has changed dramatically. 

“A lot of people volunteer through schools as reading tutors or mentors, and things like that can be adapted to virtual opportunities,” she said. “It just may take a minute to do that.”

This year, some virtual volunteer opportunities listed on the Biden day of service website include: “Creating cards for patients recovering from COVID-19; letter writing to seniors in nursing homes; knitting blankets for the homeless; virtual read-alouds to students; filling a virtual shopping cart for a military family; hotline volunteering; hosting a grassroots virtual fundraiser for a non-profit.” 

Hundreds of people won’t be able to gather on the National Mall for a service project this year, but Warfield said “a key message for King Day is the idea that it can be a launching pad for volunteer service throughout the year — it’s really the entry point for a lot of people — and even during COVID times, there are lots of ways to get involved.”

— Updated at 4:40 p.m.

Tags AmeriCorps Donald Trump Doug Emhoff inauguration week Jill Biden Joe Biden national day of service Virtual volunteering Volunteering

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