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Thousands Participate in Service Event to Benefit US Troops Overseas

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States has become more than a day of reflection for the slain civil rights leader.  This year, President-elect Barack Obama encouraged Americans to take part in a national day of community service to commemorate the memory of Reverend King.  At one service event in Washington where thousands of people felt the need to serve.

Crowds of people streamed in and out of a heated tent inside the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial stadium to put together packages for U.S. military personnel serving overseas.  The event was organized by the District of Colombia's Commission on National and Community Service.  It allowed local residents and people from out of town to assemble 75,000 kits containing food and personal items for soldiers.

Carolyn Blashek is the founder of Operation Gratitude, which helped organize the event.  Her California-based non-profit group has sent more than 400,000 packages abroad to men and women in uniform since 2003.

"The call to service has really moved people to look for ways that they can do their part," said Carolyn Blashek. "The reason I started Operation Gratitude is I wanted to serve in the military and I was too old.  And so I found that there has got to be another way to serve."

Several high profile names stopped by the event to show their support, including soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama.  Mrs. Obama often has said she would like to use her role as first lady to help American military families.

Later on in the day, U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut came with his family to lend a hand.  Dodd said his inspiration to serve came from President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech, which called on young Americans to serve their country.

"If you ask, people will come," said Senator Dodd. "But you've got to ask.  I've been asked a million times why did I join the Peace Corps.  The only answer I've ever given for 40 years is somebody asked me to, an American President asked me.  And a bunch of us all of a sudden either joined the military, went to the Peace Corps, became teachers, volunteered to do things, because an American President was sincere and he asked.  We haven't had anybody really ask us in a long time.  But if you ask, they will come."

Many volunteers echoed this call to serve.

A native Washingtonian, Rita Reynolds, said that after campaigning for Barack Obama for 19 months, this was just another way to show her support.

"Obama has a way of getting people mobilized to the point where not only can he get them out to volunteer, but throughout the whole process it's been a caring, sharing, organized experience," said Rita Reynolds.

Organizers estimate that some 15,000 people participated in Monday's event.

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