Volunteerism — Lord Of The Rings’ Sean Astin

Circa 2004

Recently more than 2,500 volunteer and national service leaders gathered in Kansas City for the National Conference on Community Volunteering and National Service. Together they hope to motivate more Americans to volunteer, and to make public service even more effective at meeting social needs in communities throughout the country. Convened by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Foundation, the conference provided training and networking opportunities for volunteers, businesses, nonprofits, state service commissions and national and community service programs.

The theme of the event, “Changing Our Communities—One Volunteer at a Time,” reflects the current swell of Americans willing to give of their time to service. A recent federal study found that 64 million Americans volunteered in 2003, an increase of 4 million over the previous year.

One person answering the call is Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin, a member of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. Delivering the conference’s opening address, Astin showed that his passion for volunteering is definitely no act.

The following is excerpted from the speech Astin wrote in his hotel room shortly before taking the stage:

Good afternoon. Thank you so much for allowing me to be here today to address what I consider to be one of the most important audiences ever convened in the history of human life on this planet.

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The Continental Congress, the formation of the League of Nations, the Last Supper—these were significant gatherings, to be sure. The sense of purpose that infused the discussion and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles must have seemed powerful and potent to the world leaders gathered there, but this is something different, something altogether more impressive.

For me there’s something more exciting about our gathering because we don’t have to be here. There’s not an urgent, burning call of history that forces us to come today to Kansas City, Missouri. We’re not here to stop a war or form a new system of government. No, we’re here because we choose to be here, because in each of our hearts there is a yearning to do good, to behave rightly. We offer the gesture of a portion of our time in service to one simple principle—that to volunteer, to give of ourselves in some part to another, is an act so pure, righteous, decent and noble that we’ve all prioritized this time to come together to see how we can become even more effective in our efforts to serve others.

As Senator Bond pointed out, today is also the 30th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. As our nation reflects on the passing of Ronald Reagan, one of our great leaders, and remembers the quantum sacrifices that were made to secure the liberty of our civilization, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we’re worthy of the effort. President Reagan is being remembered not only as the great communicator that he was, but also as an extraordinary optimist. People listened to him speak and could believe in possibilities, in the greatness that is America. Well, I look out at the two thousand or so of you sitting here and I say that the greatness that is America is alive and well in this room today.

We are absolutely worthy of those who have gone before us. The freedom we enjoy, the opportunity we have as a society to seize this moment in time, to lead by example for the entire world, to show that when our presidents and leaders say that America is a generous nation [it means] that we are a country of people who care, that we leverage our intelligence, our sophistication, our technology in the service of helping others, that’s who we are as a people. Maybe not always, maybe not enough. But certainly here in this room with you, you good people, you leaders in the volunteer movement. You stand in the vanguard. You walk in the trenches with your thousands of unsung moments of decency and generosity and kindness of spirit.

And for those times when no one has noticed but you chose to help someone anyway, I salute you. For the fact that you each take your education, your talent, your life’s blood that is your work and apply it in service of your fellow man, I salute you. And for all of the creativity and entrepreneurship and determination that you exhibit as we all work together to grow the tradition of service in our hearts and throughout our communities, I salute you.

So hyperbole and self-aggrandizing showmanship aside, I challenge all of you to unleash the true believer within. I wish you an extraordinarily successful conference, because I believe that if the mission of the President’s Council on which I serve is completed, if a culture of volunteerism and civic service comes alive in the hearts of our people for all time, then wars can be stopped and no new systems of governance need be devised. Then the latent challenge that sits in front of every American citizen enjoying the luxury of our hard-fought freedoms will have been accepted, the sense of urgency that you all feel will have been vindicated, and history will treat us well.

It’s all right. I drank a Red Bull before I wrote that!

Maybe it’s good for me to share a little bit of how I came to be a member of the President’s Council, by way of a personal testimonial. My father always taught me that no matter what life gives us, no matter what hardship or what greatness we have in front of us or what good opportunities come to us, it’s incumbent upon all of us to create value.

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The bedeviling thing was he didn’t say exactly how to create that value. He just said to create value. He inspired in my young mind the idea that both in my work as an actor, filmmaker and producer, and outside of my work, I have a tremendous personal responsibility, and I accept it. I accept my responsibility to lead a good life, to try and do good works, and hopefully in so doing, to lead by example for my wife and children and for anyone I come in contact with.

My first volunteer activity was when I was about two years old and I was volunteered by my parents to do a public service announcement for the Coast Guard. We had those big orange [life preservers]. That’s one of my earliest memories of being photographed—standing with my parents as they were recording this public service announcement.

On September 11th, 2002, I found myself in Washington, D.C., at the Pentagon for the one-year memorial ceremony of 9/11. I happened to be in D.C. that day because my friend Dan Lyons called me and said, “Some friends and I are hosting an event on the mall in Washington to acknowledge the volunteer work of a couple thousand students who have spent the last year devoted to community service, and I want you to be the master of ceremonies.” I didn’t have any real expectation that there would be very many people on the mall in Washington that day. I knew these kids would be there and we’d be able to specifically honor them, but I didn’t expect there would be thousands of people. And there weren’t.

From an objective observer’s perspective it was a kind of paltry event. It was meaningful, I think, to the kids who traveled from all over the country to receive their awards and it was meaningful to all of us who participated, but I know that Dan and some of the other event organizers went away pounding their heads in frustration that it wasn’t bigger, that more people weren’t recognizing what was being done.

Since 1995 I’ve served as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army, and that morning I was at the memorial observation and ceremony with the president. Somebody from the White House came up to me and said, “I’m a big fan—I love your movies. What are you doing here?” I told her the story and she said, “You have got to be on the President’s Council for Service and Civic Participation.” I looked at her and I said, “Well…I’m a Democrat.” She said, “That’s okay, it’s bipartisan.”

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I was in New Zealand during the 2000 election debacle and I would find myself at dinners with foreign heads of state and ambassadors trying to explain why my country, the most powerful country on the face of the Earth, was having a hard time holding a free and fair election. It was not an enviable position to be in But I remember as a proud partisan Democrat actually responding to something in President Bush’s campaign speeches when he talked about wanting to “raise the tone of the national discussion.” That actually really meant something to me. Here, now, was an emissary from his administration asking me to be a part of a council to promote the kind of service that I was already doing anyway.

I’m one of these renegade, half-cocked, whirling dervish, Tasmanian devil sort of volunteers, and I often find myself volunteering in places like New York when the power went out. That day when I realized the news wasn’t on because the power was out, there were no candles or matches [in my house] and the sun was about to go down. I ended up thinking to myself, “Well, this is an opportunity to volunteer.”

I wandered out and ended up spending nearly 13 hours with an emergency service unit racing around in a commandeered police traffic van. We had six elevator mechanics and were getting people unstuck from elevators and helping old people and kids get where they were going. We were giving directions, handing out water and just volunteering and helping. It was really fun.

I could have been part of one of those keg parties that were happening on the side of the street, but Sergeant Miguel Ramos and I were racing around. The next morning I went to my friend’s hotel—they actually had a diesel generator so they had a telephone—and I called 411. “Can I have the White House, please? Thank you very much.” I got through to the switchboard and asked for the folks on the President’s Council. I said, “I just volunteered all night, do you want me to be out in front?”

They said, “Go to city hall and introduce yourself to the mayor and offer your support.” Next thing I was on MSNBC talking about the importance of volunteerism.

I’m also proud to serve on the board of the National Center for Family Literacy. It’s appalling that there are 44 million adult Americans who are illiterate—they can’t read a prescription bottle or their children’s report cards. Our mission at the National Center for Family Literacy is to help foster a tradition of reading to your kids every day. My wife and my kids are proud to serve with me in that regard. I just thought I should mention that, because I don’t want you to think that I’m only sort of a freakish weirdo who will volunteer in situations like a power outage.

Starring in Lord of the Rings, which has made nearly $3 billion in worldwide box office receipts, has put me in an interesting position on planet Earth. A lot of people put a microphone in front of me and a lot of people ask me to speak for them, and I count it as a part of some greater design because it feels so right. I’m so grateful to the president and to the people in his administration who asked me to be a part of the President’s Council, and I’m proud to stand here tonight to say thank you and to wish you Godspeed. I’m sure that we’ll be in the trenches working together for years to come.

Points of Light Foundation www.pointsoflight.org

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