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updated: 11/28/2010 8:52 AM

Invisible recovery still needs volunteers

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Remember that recession? It ended more than a year ago, the economists say.

Surprised? Me, too.

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I think it's safe to say the news hasn't made it to most folks yet. Nor has the reality. By some estimates, more than 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed or have simply given up the search for work.

That's the statistic we hear. However, beneath the numbers are the stories of American families struggling to stay afloat. This holiday season, families who never thought they'd have to worry about such things are visiting food banks to supply their holiday meals. And the food banks are already overstretched.

The pain of the economy is spreading, and fast, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 2009, more than 17 million households were hungry, temporarily or chronically 17 million. That number represents about 14 percent of all American households families all over the country, urban, suburban and rural.

As bleak as that outlook appears, I am hopeful.

Why? Because, in one form or another, communities and individual across the world are standing up to take care of, and responsibility for, their neighbors. We all struggle with this question of our role and responsibility in helping our neighbors and our communities. But, many more than you would have ever thought possible are signing up to help out to the best of their abilities. In fact, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more Americans are answering the call to volunteer in their communities. About 1.6 million more Americans volunteered in 2009 than in 2008, the largest increase since 2003, according to the organization.

These are not all retirees or young people trying to fulfill community-service requirements. These are you-and-me Americans who know that two hours here and four hours there add up to big change. They are people who sacrifice a few hours of sleeping, watching TV, drinking or socializing to build and strengthen the bonds of their community.

For that, I am hopeful. Not just for the people and the communities receiving help throughout our country, but for our country. There are a lot of trends in this economy that appear to deliver bad news on an almost daily basis more homes in foreclosure, more people seeking unemployment benefits, rising costs of college. But this trend warms my heart. I hope it warms yours, too. I also hope it inspires you. More people doing more because more needs to be done.

As some of us grow a little grayer, a little more wisdom seems to follow. Part of it is that I've realized the best way for me to feel better about my life is to be of service to others. Having a purpose, especially one of service, is critical for our emotional well-being. And it doesn't have to be confined to those "less fortunate." Just go out and help someone. It'll make you feel better, I promise.

The second hopeful point for me is understanding that tomorrow's leaders are capable, eager, smart and, thankfully, giving of their time and talents. Many applaud America for its riches, and they are considerable, but its volunteerism is even greater.

While our gross domestic product (GDP) matters, we grow richer with every volunteer who tutors at a school. With every coach teaching athletics and life lessons, our country gets a little stronger. With every person, every child and every parent who will gather a basket of food this year, donate canned goods and volunteer at their local food pantry or soup kitchen in order to ease their neighbor's hunger, we become a little more like the country we aspire to be.

There's money and then there's the real richness of a nation. It's for that richness that I am hopeful, and in this holiday season, forever thankful.

2010, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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