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Public Papers - 1990 - January

Remarks at a White House Ceremony Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of VISTA


Let me welcome all of you and pay my respects to Bernie Aronson, our Assistant Secretary of State, who is with us today; ACTION Director Jane Kenny; Pat Rodgers, the VISTA Director. Sarge Shriver was supposed to be here. Now, whether the man is here or not, I don't know. I don't see him. But I do see Senator Chris Dodd and Senator Jay Rockefeller, and we are delighted that you came for this. And is Tribal Chairman Nicola Larsen here? I think. Right here. Welcome, Nicola. I know this must be a special day for everybody, particularly for the 25 VISTA volunteers who are our special guests of honor.

We're here today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of VISTA, though some will tell you that remembering dates isn't my strong suit. [Laughter] But I wouldn't miss this anniversary for the world.

It was a quarter of a century ago, shortly after President Johnson signed VISTA into law, that the first volunteers started their service. And today 100,000 Americans of all ages and backgrounds can proudly say: ``I was a VISTA volunteer.'' And even at this very moment, there are more than 3,000 volunteers at work in more than 650 neighborhoods. From the hollows of Appalachia to the mountains of New Mexico to the city streets of New York and Los Angeles, these volunteers work long, long hours on very short pay; and they work one community, one block, one child at a time.

Twenty-five years ago, President Johnson charged the VISTA volunteers with a tough mission, committing you -- and here's what he said -- ``to guide the young, to comfort the sick, to encourage the downtrodden, to teach the skills which may lead to a more rewarding life.'' That was your mission then and that certainly is your mission today. Every time a kid learns to read, you make a difference. Every time a homeless family finds shelter, you make a difference. And every time a troubled person stays off drugs, you make a difference for all Americans.

I know how much Barbara's work in literacy means to her and to others. And she often talks about what volunteers are doing around the country. So, I know you do give a lot. But you are not giving dignity, for that cannot be conferred, or education, because that must be acquired. You're not bestowing ambition, because ambition's got to come from within. What the men and women of VISTA do achieve is even more miraculous: You impart to so many disadvantaged Americans the means to build pride, to earn a degree or a skill, to believe in themselves.

For an individual, dignity comes when he realizes that he's the true author of his destiny; for a troubled community, it comes by finding leadership from within. So, your achievements come as much from the power of self-confidence as they do from the material side -- from material assistance. Sounds like a miracle. Maybe it is. It is a miracle that comes from caring.

Now, a few who care enough to volunteer are with us today -- many, as a matter of fact -- but Andrew Jacob, who works with at-risk street youth in Brunswick, Maine; Damita Wells, who recruits tutors for prison inmates in Nashville; and finally, Nick Flores, who counsels poor rural residents out in New Mexico, who is deeply involved in drug and alcohol abuse prevention, and who helps direct a food service for the hungry. I regard Nick as a very special volunteer because he suffered a terrible injury in a car accident prior to his assignment with VISTA. And I suppose no one would have blamed him if he had focused only on himself, only on his own needs. But not Nick Flores. He would rather serve others. And so, now he's out on the front lines, helping, building, and caring for people from Las Cruces to Santa Fe.

Perhaps he believes, like so many VISTA volunteers, that recognizing something greater than ourselves is what really matters. Or to put it as I have before: ``From now on in America, any definition of a successful life must include serving others.'' And that's what attracts men and women to VISTA -- true activists. You don't often see them because they're off helping others in the most unlikeliest places. You don't often hear from them because they're too modest to brag. And you don't often notice them at work because theirs is a quiet mission -- but together, helping move this country forward. So, when I talk of the Thousand Points of Light, please know that no light is more dazzling, brighter, than the VISTA volunteers.

I dropped by with Barbara to say thank you for all you do, and God bless you. Of course, God bless the United States. Thank you very much.

I forgot to mention the person with whom I work most closely in the White House involving voluntarism, and that's Gregg Petersmeyer here, who I know takes the same great pride in your work that Barbara and I do. But lest you didn't know who he was -- this big, tall guy in the front -- that's who it is. [Laughter] And he spends all his time trying to help stimulate this service to others that you've all made the hallmark of your lives.

Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:05 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Sargent Shriver, former Director of the Peace Corps, who was involved in the formation of VISTA; Nicola Larsen, tribal chair of the Tule River Tribal Council in Porterville, CA; and Gregg Petersmeyer, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of National Service.

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