Hordes of cheering children, parents, teachers and volunteers welcomed first lady Michelle Obama to a playground-in-progress in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood Monday, where the president's wife joined California first lady Maria Shriver in building a play structure and saluting community volunteers.
Obama cited the playground at Bret Harte Elementary School as an example of the kind of public service all Americans should embrace, a call she reiterated Monday evening at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service at Moscone Center.
"This new Obama administration doesn't view service as something separate from our national priorities. ... We have an administration that understands that service is the key to achieving our national priorities," she said. "For far too long, we've viewed service in our communities as largely separate from our policies in government."
Obama was the keynote speaker at the conference of more than 4,000 volunteer and service leaders from across the nation and around the world. The star-studded event featured speakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, musician Jon Bon Jovi and actor Matthew McConaughey. But the first lady was clearly the star.
She received star treatment at Bret Harte, where children and their parents begged for photographs and chanted "O-BA-MA" until she obliged, working the line as people held up cell phone cameras and stretched for a handshake or hug.
The campus playground, which will be open to the public, is designed to serve both youths and seniors, who will have access to game boards, an exercise path and raised planting beds. Planners hope vegetables and fruits grown on the site will eventually be sold at a campus farmers' market.
Hundreds of volunteers from the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood and across the state are building the playground. Before Obama's arrival, they scurried about with wheelbarrows of cement, hammered nails into framing lumber and slapped fresh paint on colorful murals, one of which bore the visage of Cesar Chavez and the motto—"Yes, we can"—made famous by the labor leader and again by President Obama.
Short on sleep and excited almost beyond words, children lined fences waiting for the first lady's arrival. Homes uphill from the campus were filled with spectators, their actions watched in turn by police officers lining the school's roof.
The unfinished project is sponsored by CaliforniaVolunteers, the state agency seeking to boost the number of Californians dedicated to service. Shriver accompanied Obama to the site and introduced her as a "girlfriend" and model of public service.
"If Michelle Obama and her family and her husband can find time to serve, there is no excuse for anybody else who says they are too busy," said Shriver, who has worked on 30 other playgrounds in the state, as she introduced Obama. "You don't have to be a first lady to make a difference; you just have to be a compassionate, caring human being."
Obama linked the volunteers' work to issues her husband is tackling: public health and the economy. Childhood obesity is on the rise, and diet-related health issues cost America at least $120 billion a year, she said.
"We've got to get kids moving. We've got to get them active," Obama said. "Kids don't even know where they can play or what they can play. That's where we all come in. That's where we need your help. And today is just the beginning."
Volunteers in Bayview-Hunters Point hoped that sentiment was true, and welcomed the positive focus on a community too often ignored until crime or disaster strikes.
Will it Last?
"My kids, my grandkids are growing in this community now," said Willis Chambers, a volunteer with Young Community Developers who said he wanted to see the neighborhood restored to the relatively safe place he remembered from his own childhood.
"That's the whole thing, give them something to look forward to," he said. "Even to be president if they want to be."
But some people who welcomed the first lady said they worry that the positive attention will be short-lived.
"It's cool that they're down here doing this, but what about after? What about next week?" said Century Fa'atani, a student activities coordinator at Thurgood Marshall High School who brought student government leaders to the event.
In her speech, Obama cheered her husband's administration's progress in expanding and sustaining volunteerism, from increasing applications to AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps to creating a Community Solutions Fund for nonprofits and launching serve.gov to connect volunteers to projects.
United We Serve
She announced new moves, officially launching United We Serve, the administration's service initiative that will run to Sept. 11, which will be a National Day of Service and Remembrance. She also announced a new initiative with the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which will include a weeklong television event in October in which shows on the four major networks will include public service themes.
But acknowledging concerns like Fa'atani's, Obama stressed the need to make sure service is not "the icing on the cake" with an unstated assumption that real progress will be made by business and government.
She cited her and her husband's decision to work in public service instead of lucrative law careers, and the sacrifices of America's founders, soldiers, abolitionists and ordinary volunteers.
"What they've done for this country isn't extra," Obama told attendees. "It's not something on the side, it's not just a little icing. It's what ensured our existence as a nation. It's ensured the basic rights of our citizens—it's ensured the well-being of our children."
E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at firstname.lastname@example.org.