First Lady On Why Volunteering Is Not A Photo-Op

First Lady Laura Bush at the Republican National Convention

First lady Laura Bush walks off the stage during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Sept. 2. Ethan Miller/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As Laura Bush's time in the White House nears an end, the first lady is already preparing for her post-Pennsylvania Avenue life. High on her list: community service. It's an activity she hopes other Americans will join her in, too, Bush tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

"We hope what will come is that people will realize all of the different ways they can serve," Bush said in an interview conducted in the Red Room of the White House.

Bush spoke to NPR after attending a Sept. 11 memorial service at the Pentagon. As the first lady noted in the interview, large numbers of Americans came together to help out after the Sept. 11 attacks. And volunteerism has been an important refrain for the Bush administration.

On Friday, Bush will participate in the Service Nation Summit in New York City, a nonpartisan conference built around what organizers call "a bold policy blueprint" to expand opportunities for Americans to volunteer.

Bush also says she is looking forward to a lower-profile existence after the White House.

"Normal life will be cooking, shopping, actually going to the grocery store — those sorts of things," she said.

The first lady started off the interview talking about what she hoped people will gain from the community service summit. A transcript of the conversation follows.

LAURA BUSH: We hope what will come is that people will realize all of the different ways they can serve. And there are so many ways people can serve. A lot of people in the United States serve through their faith congregation, they serve in the United States, they serve abroad.

Many, many people volunteer in American public schools. And there are some new ways to volunteer. One is called pro bono volunteers, and it's a way for businesses to provide pro bono help to NGOs that might need administrative help, or accounting help, or to provide it to developing countries.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Richard Stengel, the editor of Time, which is one of the sponsors of the Summit on Service in New York, wrote a cover story about service for Time last year. He proposed, among other things, having a Cabinet secretary, a national secretary of national service and tripling the size of, say, AmeriCorps. Do those sound like good ideas to you?

Well, sure. One of the things President Bush started was a commission on service that actually worked — they're the ones who started the pro bono service. But I also think that, you know, we need to — it doesn't have to be a government-sponsored service. And part of the most successful programs that the president has sponsored are the faith-based and community-based service programs, where government partners with people who are already in the field doing great work — and many times, work that governments can't do. For instance, counseling with alcoholics or working with children of prisoners.

You spoke glowingly the other day of a project in Chicago where people work with former gang members to try to prevent violence. And it reminded me of — well, I'll say, a cynical comment that a colleague of mine made. Which was, after the convention last week in St. Paul, Minn., that you attended and that I covered, would somebody who heard the mocking references to community organizers that were made there think that those people are actually serious about encouraging young people to go in and work with gang members in poor Chicago neighborhoods? Or is that just something you do when you're a — when you're going to church?

Well, this is a really — CeaseFire Chicago, the group that you're talking about, is a program started by a man who happens to be a doctor. He's a public-health doctor. And the more he thought about violence in communities, the more he realized that that's a public-health program and that it needs to be addressed, just like any other public health disease.

But is he working with people who could qualify as being called community organizers?

I don't know if that's exactly what you would call them. I don't know exactly what that is. But I will say he gives former gang members jobs; they're paid to try to intervene to prevent young people from ruining the rest of their lives because some reason that they'd get into a fight and then end up incarcerated.

One of the most interesting dimensions of national service today is that it's not just about young people, but there's a generation, a large generation retiring right now. It's our generation. It's the baby-boom generation that's coming out. And people are interested in what folks in their 60s are going to be doing in their spare time.

Well, there are a lot of great programs already started to address this idea of retirement for older people. And I'm actually looking forward to being able to volunteer a lot when I retire. But there are some great ones: Education Service is the name of one that places older Americans in schools, working with struggling readers, and they have great results.

Now, apart from looking forward to being able to do some volunteer work in Texas, we're sitting in the Red Room at the White House. This building has been your home —

That's right.

— for going on eight years right now. And I can't imagine any move out of a house that would be a more dramatic change in one's life than leaving the White House.

Leaving the White House, absolutely. There's no doubt about that. But we'll be back to normal life, which I do look forward to in some ways. Certainly, it will be hard to leave this beautiful house and all of the people that we've come to know and love so much that work here and work here for every president. A lot of them have worked here for five or six presidents already.

Normal life — I'm just trying to have a mental checklist of normal life here. You will drive again, for example?

Normal life will be cooking, shopping, actually going to the grocery store — those sorts of things.

There'll be somebody following, taking your picture every hour during that time or —

I doubt it. I think I'm going to get to have a sort of normal life.

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