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First lady Michelle Obama kicked off a summer of community service Monday by helping fix up a school playground, part of a national effort that saw administration officials traveling all over the country to promote the value of volunteering.

The initiative, known as United We Serve, was announced by President Barack Obama in a video message last week.

The president is urging people to help in the nation’s economic recovery by volunteering at schools and hospitals and pitching in on community needs ranging from tutoring to park cleanup.

Michelle Obama went to work by joining California first lady Maria Shriver and several hundred local volunteers at Bret Harte Elementary School in San Francisco, where the playground is being refurbished to include a garden with a farmers market stand where kids and seniors can sell vegetables to raise money for the school.

Obama talked about the importance of children getting exercise, adding that at the White House they’ve instituted “Camp Obama,” which means the TV and computers are off until after dinner and right before bedtime — “Bedtime is early.”

She also said the Obama girls play on a swing set that has been installed.

“They don’t even know that they’re getting exercise,” Obama said. “That’s the value of play and that’s what we need to get our kids to do in this community — but we have to provide them with resources to make that happen.”

The first lady also gave the keynote address to the 2009 National Conference on Volunteering and Service, where she told attendees that what they do isn’t easy even in good times.

“In times like these, when we’re facing challenges unlike any in our lifetime, and you all know this better than anyone, I know it can feel close to impossible,” she said.

Her husband is working to change that, she said, but government can’t do everything, she said.

Some may view volunteering as something extra, she said, but “real change” comes from “the bottom up, from citizens working and mobilizing and serving the nation that they love.”

Change is also coming to TV, she said.

The Entertainment Industry Foundation has created an initiative under which the four major networks — ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC — will include service themes and plots in TV programs during the week of Oct. 19th.

“It’s going to be a great thing,” Obama said. “This is really exciting.”

Earlier, a volunteer driver from the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans participated in the United We Serve program by transporting Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and two Vietnam-era veterans through commuter traffic to a VA hospital in Washington.

More than 80,000 people donated time last year helping with VA-related programs, but Shinseki said there’s concern that there’s been a decline in the number of volunteers.

Other senior VA officials volunteered at homeless shelters and in other ways.

Tammy Duckworth, a VA assistant secretary who lost both her legs and partial use of one arm in an attack inIraq in 2004, recalled a fellow veteran offering to wash her hair when she was injured and another volunteer pulling up a blanket for her when she was on a gurney in a hospital hall and unable to move her arms.

“Sometimes, it’s the smallest gesture that makes the difference to these vets,” Duckworth said.

Other officials promoting the event included Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a former volunteer firefighter, who met with firefighters and other emergency workers in Denver.

In New Orleans, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan helped rebuild the home of a 68-year-old widow living in a FEMA trailer.

“It’s about rolling up our sleeves,” Donovan said, plasterer’s trowel in hand and sweat beading on his forehead. “Good old-fashioned hard work to help this community rebuild.”

United We Serve is led by the government-run Corporation for National and Community Service. People who want to volunteer can visit http://www.serve.gov to look for local opportunities.

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