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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The kickoff event for the president's second inauguration is the National Day of Service. Hundreds of thousands of people, including President Obama and his family, are participating in volunteer activities around the country this weekend, doing everything from cleaning rivers and picking up garbage to assembling care packages for U.S. soldiers overseas.

Organizers hope the events will lead to a permanent boost in volunteerism, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Volunteers by their very nature are an upbeat crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning, are you guys excited?

(APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: Like this group of a dozen volunteers who came to Tyler Elementary School in Washington, D.C., yesterday to organize the school library.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I know this is B's and C's...

FESSLER: Right now the library is kind of a mess, and the kids can't check out any books. There's no librarian here because of school budget cuts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...nothing, and then we have a different pile started...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, so these need to get in the system then, right...

FESSLER: It's one of thousands of service projects being held to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and the inauguration. Lisa McBride came with colleagues from her conference planning company in Virginia. She says volunteering helps them work together better, but it also just feels good.

LISA MCBRIDE: Some of us are so privileged, and, you know, other people, such as this school run on volunteers like us and the willingness of the people to volunteer and give back.

FESSLER: And that's what motivates lots of people - teenagers, working parents, retirees. Tens of millions of Americans volunteer each year. Still, the nation's volunteer rate is less than 27 percent, about the same as it's been over the past decade. And volunteer groups are looking for ways to make that number grow.

JACKI COYLE: We can put some candy in there, yeah, that would be awesome.

FESSLER: Jacki Coyle and two of her colleagues from Shepherd's Table, a Maryland nonprofit, are setting up a booth in a huge tent on the National Mall. About 100 groups are participating there today in what the Presidential Inaugural Committee calls a service summit. The purpose is to help people learn about volunteering and then to sign them up. Coyle says sometimes people doubt they can have any impact.

COYLE: Or somebody might feel like I'm so overburdened. They have so many things in their life already. Can I take the time and go and do that? I would just say to people, if you give an hour once a month, that makes a difference.

FESSLER: Her organization, which serves the homeless, relies on over a thousand volunteers a year. Surprisingly, surveys show that those who volunteer the most are some of the busiest people around - working mothers. Nearby, Jennifer Burnside of the Junior League of Northern Virginia, is setting up a booth so volunteers can make cards to cheer up children who are ill or homeless.

JENNIFER BURNSIDE: Inside the card kit, you'll be able to use foam, stickers, glitter and glue, and write a special message for a child in need.

FESSLER: She says the key to attracting volunteers these days is flexibility.

BURNSIDE: The ability to volunteer in the evenings, the ability to volunteer on the weekends, the ability to take something home.

FESSLER: And maybe do it online, like helping a charity with recordkeeping. Michelle Nunn heads Points of Light, the nation's largest volunteer organization, which was inspired by another president, George H. W. Bush. She says non-profits have to be more creative as needs grow, but budgets tighten.

MICHELLE NUNN: There's now what we call sort of micro-volunteering, where if you actually have 15 minutes, there's little micro-assignments. You can help a nonprofit think about how they edit their funding letter or to come up with a great new slogan.

FESSLER: Or, she says, more retirees might be encouraged to volunteer with small stipends to help with transportation costs. Still, Nunn says the surest way to get people to help out has always been just to ask, which is what this weekend is all about. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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