On a cold and snowy Friday afternoon, January 20th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural speech in front of thousands of spectators in Washington, D.C. His remarkable speech was televised to millions around the world. In his speech, President Kennedy spoke directly to the hearts of all Americans, regardless of their race, nationality, religion or social status. He famously asked them to rise to the occasion and deal with the day’s challenges by saying, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” His main goal is to challenge all Americans to be proud of their country and to participate in their country’s present and future success by serving in their communities in order to keep America strong.
To begin with, President Kennedy wanted to instill a sense of pride in all Americans, including children by encouraging them to serve their communities and thus their great country. He wanted people to learn and understand the value of helping each other and the commitment of giving and sacrificing for the greater good. Also, President Kennedy believed that in order for America to stay strong, everyone must be engaged and give back, not just expect benefits from the government. Our military men and women sacrifice their lives every day so that we can keep our freedoms and live in peace. In return, as good citizens, we go to school, work, vote, pay taxes and follow the law. There are many opportunities for community service for kids. As middle schoolers, we can contribute to the good of our country by offering small but very meaningful gestures to our communities we live in. We can volunteer our time in a community clean up, plant trees, participate in food and toy drives, or help people in need by visiting homeless shelters and nursing homes. Community service does not always have to be a chore. We can find activities that we enjoy, such as volunteering at local summer camps, reading books to toddlers, walking or running in charity races, helping our parents or grandparents with cutting grass, washing the cars, or walking the dogs outside. In school, we can help our teachers by studying hard, behaving properly, following rules, and doing our assignments and homework on time. We can also help our friends with studying math or any other subject we are good at.
At the end, President Kennedy wanted all of us to be thankful for the country we live in and contribute to its successes. He believed that community service would teach us leadership, compassion, and empathy. Not everyone in this world is fortunate to enjoy the freedoms we have here in America. Community service and volunteering is not only good for our communities and our country; it is good for our spirits. After all, we are all in it together.
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” a statement by John F. Kennedy, challenged every American to contribute in some way to our country, for the public good.
This means that all citizens should be more concerned as what we can do to improve the condition of our country rather than what we expect our government to do for us. President Kennedy’s statement goes beyond looking at just our country. I believe his statement should be applied to all we do. To me, the statement means that we should not be selfish and take things for granted. We should work hard for things instead of expecting to get them automatically.
Ask not what your parents can do for you – ask what you can do for your parents. Our parents are loving, they give us food, but we should not take it for granted. We should give back to them by helping around the house, making good grades, doing chores, cleaning our rooms, and we should love them like they love us unconditionally.
Ask not what your school can do for you – ask what you can do for your school. The opportunity for education should not be taken for granted. Teachers work hard to provide students with an education and, as students, we should give back to our schools by being respectful to teachers and students, volunteering, participating in school functions, and tutoring other students.
Ask not what your community can do for you –ask what you can do for your community. Our community is the immediate world around us. Parks for example, we all love going to the park. We love to play on the playground, walk our dogs, and have a picnic. Parks are beautiful. It is our responsibility to keep the park beautiful for others to enjoy by cleaning it up after we’ve been there and making sure that other people do the same. Another example are the elderly. We should help the elderly by volunteering and make sure they are okay. Meeting the needs of those who once gave their all to our community, who now can no longer give is what it’s all about. Another way to give back is to volunteer at the homeless shelter. There are families that do not have anything. Helping cook a meal, donate clothes and toys can help a needy family get back on their feet.
What President Kennedy was really talking about, it’s not about getting, it is all about giving. And when we give, we get, as an individual, to our parents, school, community, or government – so much in return.
Recently, Americans remembered the legacy of President John F. Kennedy on the 50th Anniversary of his assassination. Millions watched the historic footage of his inaugural address as he was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. His presidency marked a new era for Americans ready to take the lead. Faced with the challenges of cold war, global tyranny, poverty, disease and an uncertain nuclear age, President Kennedy called on Americans to commit to service and sacrifice through civic action and participation in public service through his words:
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
The world was inspired that cold day on the Capitol steps. President Kennedy realized the need to mobilize volunteers to solve humanitarian crises and build capacity for underserved citizens. He envisioned a stronger America engaged in service. He challenged every American to contribute in some way to the public good.
Today, America faces challenges with that same spirit of selflessness as strong as ever and service is being used to address critical community problems. At a time when needs are so great, government can’t do it all, volunteers are more vital than ever.
Volunteers are the heart of America, essential to our nation’s social and economic well being. They do hard work: helping kids learn to read, fighting hunger, rebuilding communities after disasters, connecting veterans to services, bringing life back to forgotten neighborhoods, improving lives of children and more. As responsible citizens, we determine how to make a difference in every community.
Several influences in my life have given me the courage to serve others. My family has been touched by cancer. I decided to use personal experience as a cancer caregiver to help others. I serve the American Cancer Society, which promotes the prevention of cancer, helps legislators understand cancer research funding and policies. My Relay for Life involvement is connected to my academic goals for a career in the medical field where I can use science to cure patients. I value our school-wide fundraising efforts for Relay for Life that supports my participation as an American Cancer Society volunteer.
I am proud my school and community support and model service through academic and extracurricular opportunities. The Beta Club motto, “let us lead be serving others” lives through our efforts to clean our campus, tutor students and collect donations for needy families. Locally, I was inspired by volunteer coaches in the Parks and Recreation programs and in turn, have volunteered my time for future generations. These activities have taught me to be caring, helpful and committed.
President Kennedy’s words are relevant today. Our nation was built on the fabric of service and it continues to strengthen each individual by empowering the talents of many to solve modern problems. That volunteer spirit is woven into the DNA of the American people and makes our nation strong. It defines who we are as a people, united in service.
Serving my country was an inflection point--it set my life on a new course. A former Marine, I find myself in a constant pursuit of re-attaining the meaningfulness of those four years, chasing the feeling I had when my profession involved working in challenging conditions with teams of great people to solve big problems whose scope exceeded personal gain. Because I was in the military, I'm allowed to self-identify as having served my country; for thousands of diplomats, intelligence professionals, Peace Corps Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, firefighters, policemen, and others working to improve communities around the nation, it would be awkward to say "I served my country." It shouldn't be.
Service to country isn't linked to combat. Though I served as an infantry officer in time of war, and went to Iraq, I've never been in combat. The same is true for about half the Marines with whom I served--and that was in a combat arms unit. While those who bear the costs of battle carry a heavier burden, the rest of us can still rightly say we've served our country. Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life--high school, college, work--to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.
Nor is the recognition of "service to country" a result of deployment abroad in austere conditions. As of 2010, about 40% of the active duty military had never deployed. That statistic is dated--and the Department of Defense has undertaken measures to share the burdens of war more evenly across the Department in recent years--but it is still instructive. Furthermore, as anyone who has deployed will tell you, for every military servicemember living in harsh conditions at a patrol base or outpost, there's one who lives in a large headquarters complete with a Green Bean Coffee and Burger King. Peace Corps Volunteers in Sub-Saharan Africa and City Year members living on small stipends in places like Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit certainly deal with more austerity than troops serving in the states or abroad on large headquarters complexes.
Because the burdens of twelve years of war have been borne by such a small percentage of the country, our appreciation for service has morphed into a reflexive deference toward those in uniform. If you've worn a uniform, people thank you for your service. More importantly, military veterans are open to benefits and hiring incentives in recognition for their service that dwarf those offered to other national servants. While new structures are needed to incentivize and recognize all types of national service, a good first step in this direction would be for us simply to acknowledge that there are a lot of ways to serve one's country.
Describing the Peace Corps, President Kennedy said "If the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying." I feel camaraderie with my fellow Marines because I share with them a knowledge of actively pursuing a virtuous life in austere conditions. I feel a comparable bond--based on the same shared, civic ethic--with my brothers and sisters-in-service who have done their time in institutions like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or the State Department. They're serving their country, too--and we should recognize them for it.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.
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