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USA Freedom Corps' Desiree Sayle - interview by Chet Cooper

Nobel Peace Prize winner, humanitarian and doctor Albert Schweitzer once said, “I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found, how to serve.” Mahatma Gandhi declared, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and Voltaire went so far as to say, “I know of no great men except those who have rendered great service to the human race.”

These declarations of service have not been lost on our leaders, as nearly every United States President has left a legacy of volunteerism. In 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew the Peace Corps, an agency devoted to world peace and friendship. As part of his War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson created VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) to provide opportunities for Americans to help thousands of low-income communities. President George H. W. Bush created the Points of Light Foundation to foster volunteering and President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, creating AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service, which help nonprofits and charitable organizations grow and expand opportunities for Americans to serve their communities.

To help foster a culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility, President George W. Bush created the USA Freedom Corps. In his 2002 State of the Union Address President Bush asked all Americans to dedicate two years or 4,000 hours over the course of their lives to serving others. The mission of USA Freedom Corps brings together executive branch departments, agencies, and offices with public service programs and components to recruit, mobilize, and encourage all Americans to engage in public service.

President Bush appointed Desiree Sayle the deputy assistant to the president and director of USA Freedom Corps and charged her with helping Americans answer his call to service. Before leading the president’s volunteer initiative, Sayle was the director of Laura Bush’s correspondence office and then, after September 11, 2001, she was appointed special assistant to the president and director of presidential correspondence. Prior to working at the White House, Sayle was the correspondence director for America’s Promise—The Alliance for Youth, led by General Colin L. Powell.

Sayle understands that all people, regardless of age, ethnicity or disability, have something they are able to offer the community, from Millard and Linda Fuller, who created Habitat for Humanity, to the late 13-year-old Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, poet and peacemaker Mattie J.T. Stepanek. Chet Cooper recently sat down with Desiree Sayle to discuss the USA Freedom Corps, volunteerism and her dream job as director.

Chet Cooper: When we first met, nearly a year ago, you were relatively new to your position. What has happened in the past year?

Desiree Sayle: It feels as though I just saw you yesterday! (laughs) A lot has happened. We have worked very hard to promote an issue that everybody can agree about: volunteer service. In August we launched our kids’ website geared toward elementary and middle school students. We’ve found if children can be engaged at a young age they will continue to volunteer as they grow older.

CC: It’s great logic.

DS: One of the best ways to reach youth is through the Internet. I thought it was an easily accessible tool we were missing and a great place to focus our attention.

CC: I’ve seen a lot of research supporting what you’re doing. People who volunteer as adults usually volunteered when they were teenagers, and the kids who volunteer as teenagers usually started volunteering in grade school.

DS: You’re exactly right, and that is precisely why we looked at providing information to our kids in elementary and middle school.

CC: What features does the website include?

DS: We have a fact sheet that is not only for our elementary- and middle school-aged kids, but is also a resource for parents and teachers. The site has a neat format that mimics some of the popular children’s magazines. If you look at some of the magazines, they offer question-and-answer quizzes, and a lot of ideas are combined with crafts. For our elementary kids, we’ve formatted the website to give them volunteer service ideas combined with craft projects.

CC: Can you give an example?

DS: Go to an animal shelter and volunteer to walk the dogs and help clean up the facility, but before you go, make dog biscuits at home. Visit sick kids in the hospital, but take friendship bracelet strings to the hospital so you can make friendship bracelets. Go clean a park, but first design a t-shirt to wear. They are fun ideas that lead parents to say, “Hey, listen, this is a great service activity, but it also combines something that will be fun for kids to do.”

For our middle school-aged kids, we’ve designed the website as a click map. For example, it may ask something like, You’ve got a free Saturday, do you want to … (A) Go to the mall or (B) Go visit a senior or (C) Do something else?

CC: Take a senior to the mall!

DS: That is what we recommended. The site offers good suggestions for things to do. Like you said—go to the mall, but take a senior with you. We’ve also just incorporated our first disability question: You and your best friend who has a disability love to volunteer; what are some of your ideas? We had a lot of fun with that one because it really makes you think. Kids who have disabilities still have abilities, and there are phenomenal opportunities. We’re prompting kids to think for themselves and to say, “Hey listen, people with disabilities aren’t so different.”

CC: Since 9/11, where have you seen the largest growth in volunteering?

DS: The largest growing sector is the 16 to 24 year-olds. We think they’re being bitten by the bug early and continuing to feel an obligation of service to their communities. At the same time, seniors will continue to be a very valuable resource, as well as our baby boomers who are soon to become seniors.

CC: How is the president’s greeter program doing?

DS: Great. We’ve expanded the program. When the president travels around the United States he meets with an exceptional community volunteer every time Air Force One lands. The volunteer greeter may be affiliated with a national service program, a local nonprofit or a faith-based organization. We try to look for great examples of volunteers who can serve as models within their communities. We’ve included a number of young people as our greeters.

CC: How are the greeters selected?

DS: We’re fortunate enough to work with a network of thousands of nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations and national service programs. They provide some recommendations, and then we talk with the volunteers and they can tell us what they’ve done. We’ve heard some really amazing stories.

CC: What other programs have you focused on since the president’s re-election?

DS: What have we not expanded into? (laughs) Mrs. Bush is obviously doing her At-Risk Youth Initiative and we’re very involved in linking our governmental and non-governmental partners to provide her with information. Her focus has been closely in line with the goals of many groups that work with USA Freedom Corps, promoting prevention and intervention to ensure at-risk kids receive the tools they need to become successful.

One of the things we’ve found is that a mentor is key in the successful development of any child. It doesn’t have to be a volunteer mentor—it can be a parent, teacher, counselor or coach. There are 15 million kids who need mentors. Fifteen million! That’s one area where I think the disability community can really do a fantastic job. Mentoring is a great way to share their talent and knowledge with kids and break down barriers even further.

CC: What is the process for someone who wants to become a mentor?

DS: We’re very proud of USA Freedom Corps’ on-line volunteer network. It’s the largest on-line clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities on the Internet. You can go to our site and put in your interest area and where you live, and opportunities will be listed. You then contact those organizations directly.

CC: What about those who do not have Internet access?

DS: We’ve been working very closely with our volunteer centers. You can call the operator and ask for your local volunteer center, or look it up in the Yellow Pages. It’s just like the website except it’s in your community.

CC: How is the USA Freedom Corps involved in the Tsunami relief effort?

DS: Actually, I’m heading off shortly to a briefing from the former presidents. They just traveled to Southeast Asia, where they visited four countries in five days and had a really valuable experience. They’ll be talking to President Bush about what they found.

CC: The Tsunami disaster certainly compelled people around the world to want to help those affected.

DS: Every day you turned on the TV and saw not just the images of hundreds of bodies, but also pictures that you identified with. It became personal to everybody, and I think that really compelled Americans to be extra generous, to open up their pockets and help. The neat thing is the funds were geared toward organizations that were already on the ground, internationally recognized organizations.

CC: We’ve been communicating with the president of the National Federation for the Blind in Sri Lanka. Ironically, we were talking to him prior to the Tsunami, with the last correspondence coming just one day before. We were very concerned, because it took quite a while to hear from him after the devastation, but now we are in communication again. We are discussing how ABILITY Magazine’s nonprofit, ABILITY Awareness, might partner with their organization to help build housing for their clients who are blind or have low vision. The unique aspect of our partnership with Habitat for Humanity International is that we utilize volunteers with disabilities during the construction, emphasizing their skills and talents.

DS: We really feel it’s so beneficial for everyone in the disability community to be involved. It helps them learn needed skills, and they’re providing health and hope to someone else in their community. It’s breaking barriers, showing that people with disabilities aren’t so different from people with typical abilities.

One of our focuses is in providing more resources and tools for individuals to help them volunteer in their communities—letting them know what the needs are, communicating effectively. One of the ways we communicate the importance of volunteer service is through the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. There are about 25 members on the council, ranging from our chair Darrell Green [former Washington Redskins NFL player and founder of the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation] to Home Depot chairman Bob Nardelli, Senator Bob Dole, Senator John Glenn and Cal Ripkin, Jr. [former Baltimore Orioles baseball player, involved with the Cal Ripkin, Sr. Foundation and the Baltimore Reads/Ripkin Learning Center]. We’ve got actors Sean Astin from The Lord of the Rings and Dixie Carter, of the television comedy Designing Women. It’s a place where everybody comes together; it’s very bipartisan. All of the members serving on the council do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Nobody’s making them do it—they’re there because they want to help the community.

CC: How do all of the government organizations involved in supporting volunteerism—USA Freedom Corps, the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Foundation—coordinate their efforts?

DS: We’re all here to encourage volunteer service—that’s pretty simple—and to ensure the players on the national service level and the government level are coordinated. There are a number of government initiatives promoting volunteer service, and we want to make sure everybody’s talking to one another, that best practices are shared and there’s not over-duplication.

The second thing we do is reach out to the non-governmental organizations and applaud their work. We can support them, bring attention to what they’re doing to promote volunteer service and the need for it. We’ve also done a number of projects like our sustainability study, which helps nonprofits ascertain how to best plan ahead to utilize volunteers.

CC: As we face our challenges abroad it becomes increasingly important to show our true volunteer nature; it is such an important thing for the rest of the world to see.

DS: I couldn’t agree more. It’s about cross-cultural understanding. The Peace Corp was founded in the 1960s based on the idea that there are shared needs and we can share technologies and effective ways to do things. But really, we also share our cultures. We gain an appreciation for other cultures, and as they get to understand more about us they may develop appreciation for us as well.

CC: Is this your dream job?

DS: Absolutely, although being a mother is my first dream job. But how could anybody disagree about volunteer service? How could anybody disagree we’ve got opportunities in America that don’t exist anywhere else around the world? We all have obligations. I don’t care what your situation is, what your education level is, what your background is or what your disability is, the fact is that everyone has talents. If you have time, share your talents.

But yes, this is my dream job. I’ve been a lifelong volunteer. I was just in a board meeting for a local preschool last night, and I volunteered over the weekend organizing a painting job to help with chipping plaster, which is not fun.

CC: Is that what’s in your hair.

DS: (laughs)

CC: When did you start volunteering?

DS: Girl Scouts was a huge influence in volunteering, and it was a remarkable and very positive learning environment. I will always be a Girl Scout. I will be a troop leader, given the opportunity. But my first real true opportunity was with the Special Olympics in my high school. I accompanied a participant, one of the athletes.

CC: Did your awareness about disability change once you started volunteering?

DS: I was always really involved in sports. I ran track and field, and the Special Olympics was a great fit. I think volunteering is life-changing in one respect or another. You have to pick the right project—you have to find the one that you are most passionate about.

I’ve had volunteer jobs where I’ve not felt fully engaged or I’ve not felt it was a good use of my time. I’ve had other exceptional opportunities—for instance, with the Alexander Graham Bell Institute for the Deaf, where they were lobbying heavily for the cochlear implant.

CC: Do you get to travel much in your position?

DS: I try to travel for my national service programs and our non-governmental organizations, and also if there are opportunities to support our partners and promote the message, “Hey, this is valuable and the president thinks everyone can do it.” It goes back to the president’s original message, calling on Americans to contribute 4,000 hours or two years over the course of their lifetimes. It’s not an outrageous thing to ask for and certainly very doable if you get involved in a community. The younger you start the greater chance that you will be able to really make an impact, change your life and change someone else’s life.

ABILITY Awareness (ABILITY Corps)

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Other articles in the Christopher Meloni issue include Letter From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: My Year; Headlines: Project Hope, Blind Justice & Down Syndrome; Senator Grassley: The American Dream for All; Employment: Latinos with Disabilities; Book Section: Too Late to Die Young; Multiple Sclerosis: New Development; Geoffrey Erb: SUV’s Director of Photography; Comedian Spotlight: Tanyalee Davis; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences...

More excerpts from the Christopher Meloni issue: (2006)

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Tech Section: Creating Unity in Educational Technology

Celiac Disease: Living Gluten Free

I'm Not Angry: Memoirs of Deborah Max

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