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'Swinging a Hammer, Swinging a Brush'

For Rep. Doris Matsui, remembering Sept. 11 is a hands-on effort

Everyone knows Happy Days takes place in Milwaukee and Family Ties in Columbus, Ohio.

Here's a tougher trivia question:  Where does Eight Is Enough take place?

If you said Sacramento, Calif., you were only half right. Like most shows, the series is set in a made-for-TV version of the real city.

Find a 9/11 National Day of Service volunteer opportunity. >>

Only in a saccharine, sanitized Sacramento could a fussbudget like Dick Van Patten marry a fox like Betty Buckley. There was no crime, no poverty, no pollution — and, aside from the irritating fifth-season addition of Ralph Macchio, no serious youth issues.

U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, 65, a Democrat, comes from the real Sacramento, California’s fifth district. And she knows all too well that her role in the nation's capital is to address the very real issues confronting her electorate back home.

But she also knows that the folks she serves have an irreplaceable role, too. It’s to volunteer.

That sense of duty is seeping "deep into the human fabric of communities now," says the three-term congresswoman, and drastically changing society.

This is why she has a long schedule for this year's 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance. She will head out early on Sept. 11 to Hands On Sacramento, a group that matches volunteers with projects that need their help. Then she'll visit the city's transitional Oak Park neighborhood, where she will join hundreds of other Sacramento volunteers in a blocklong Habitat for Humanity project. She'll wind up her day of service at a NeighborWorks house-painting project.

A frequent volunteer, she's ready for the day's long punch list — "swinging a hammer, swinging a paintbrush," she calls it. And if it rains, the Asian American grandmother says, "quite frankly, that’s fun."

To Matsui, the Oak Park turnout is a familiar demonstration of American cooperation. "This is probably the only country in the world with this kind of sense of community," she says. "There is a commitment to assure those families in that neighborhood that people really care. We are not going to leave them behind."

Matsui is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce; she also serves as co-chair of the National Service Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators. From those experiences, she has gained this perspective:  Something is evolving in the world of community service — a heightened set of demands.

Next: Honor the spirit of community. >>

"It’s continuity. It’s sustainability. It’s not something you go out and just do, something you feel good about. Volunteering has to be a lifelong thing," she insists.

Matsui perceives a volunteering class of Americans as an important force, especially during emergencies like Katrina five years ago.

"There may be people who think that public funding for volunteering is not appropriate. But in Katrina, you really needed trained team leaders. It’s not just ‘going there,’ but trying to figure out what we do next. What we do next is the challenge."

Volunteerism plays into many aspects of Matsui's work, whether she’s resolving a housing issue or funding a new museum.

"To me, art is essential to humanity. Without art, there is no sense of the social fabric, no way to look outside of ourselves," she says.

According to Matsui, community service that recognizes art’s fundamental value can be as no-frills as "bringing papers, crayons, whatever, to a school. Young people find the greatest pleasure in the simple things, as long as they feel people are interested in them."

She sees a distinct role for older Americans in the national aesthetic experience. "Seniors have great stories to tell. That is an art," she says. "Start telling your stories, about where you grew up — Iowa, Nebraska. It’s a way of reaching people at every human level."

But she also sees a role for older volunteers in every aspect of volunteering. Say, health.

"I have gotten to know a lot of seniors who make it a point to visit other seniors, to make sure they are fine." Without taking aim at the care system and its possible lapses, she enthusiastically endorses this ad-hoc backup system.  

"Really, they are that first alert if someone doesn’t have what they need. Enough food, or some medical problem is arising,” she says.

Community conscience also figures in Matsui’s prescriptives for law and order. Security begins at the grass-roots level, right in people’s front yards, she says.

"I live on a block in Sacramento where everybody knows each other. The house I live in is the house my husband’s family built and grew up in. And so everybody knows everybody. And it is really the seniors who engender this.

"Every year, there is a night that we get together, block by block, and I think that is very important. It sets a standard for everybody else that let’s them know: We are really involved."

That thought cuts right to the driving force behind this specific day of service and remembrance — to honor the spirit of community so vividly evinced nine years ago.

"We, as Americans, just rushed in," Matsui says.

Jack Curry, a former editor at USA Today, is a freelance writer and editor and serves on the editorial board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specializing in corporate philanthropy and the media.

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