MRS. OBAMA: Hello. Good afternoon. Welcome to the White House and Happy Holidays! Thanks to all of you for joining us here today as we preview how we will mark the holidays here at the White House.
Now, like many years past, we've actually been planning this day, and the holiday season, since the summer. And our starting point was a very simple idea: that we include as many people, in as many places, in as many ways as we can.
So we decided to do something just a little different. We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations, we sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House.
And today, thanks to the East Wing and Residence staff, and 92 volunteers from 24 states who spent more than 3,400 hours decorating over the last several days, we have ornaments hanging on the tree behind me throughout the White House and everywhere else that include the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Kennedy Center -- Space Center, as well as some less known places like Davy Crockett Park in Tennessee, Pompey's Pillar in Billings, Montana and one of my favorites, the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
We also have one of the favorite traditions here at the White House on display -– it's the gingerbread masterpiece by our brilliant chef Bill Yosses, and his team.
But this year we've included something a little bit different. In addition to the gingerbread White House we also have the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn, a shadow box that lets you look into the gingerbread White House and view the State Dining Room. And I just saw there's also a little Bo replica. (Laughter.) So that's a new addition.
And we opened the doors last night to the first of more than 50,000 visitors who will come to the White House during this holiday season, and it's safe to say that everyone was really impressed. And I heard you all partying last night. You had a great time. (Laughter.)
For many people, a visit to the White House is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it has been made even more magical because of all of your hard work, all of our volunteers. So I want to take just a moment again to thank all of our volunteers who spent so much time making this White House such a special treat, and we hope you had as good a time as it sounded like you had last night. (Laughter.) Your work has really transformed the White House, which is, as we always say, the people's house, and we're so grateful for everything that you've done to make this really a special treat for all of us.
And finally, I want to take a moment to talk about why we chose this year's theme, which is "Reflect, Rejoice and Renew."
And for the Obama family, Christmas and the New Year has always been a time to reflect on our many blessings, to rejoice in the pleasure of spending time with our family and our friends, and to renew our commitment to one another and to the causes that we believe in. And I wanted to continue that part of the tradition during our first holiday season here at the White House.
And this year has been filled with an infinite number of blessings for me and my family. And I say this all the time, but every day I am honored to be this nation's First Lady. And from the day that my family arrived here, I have wanted the American people to share in our journey, to share in the history and the excitement that makes the White House such a special landmark in this nation.
That's why we've worked so hard throughout this year to invite as many people as possible to events here at the White House. We've tried to showcase talents and contributions of our artists and our inventors, of students and masters, of exalted heroes and ordinary citizens of every age and every background. The idea has been to create an environment where every story and every voice is welcome in the White House, and for all of us to rejoice in their accomplishments and to celebrate their contributions to the life of this nation.
And in the new year, we all intend to renew this effort and continue this kind of outreach, so that everyone feels like they have a place here at the White House. And I know many people approach the holidays in the same way in their own lives, and that at this time of year for so many people, they are looking for opportunities to give thanks and to give back. And we're doing the same thing here at the White House. We're focusing our efforts this year on two very important causes -- we're supporting local food banks, and the Toys for Tots program.
Hunger is on the rise here in America, hitting its highest levels in nearly 15 years. A recent report released by the USDA reveals that in 2008, an estimated 1.1 million children were living in households that experienced hunger multiple times over this year. And, of course, no child in the United States of America should ever go to bed hungry, and no family in this country should have to worry that they won't have food on the table, not just during the holidays, but every day.
So to combat hunger this winter, in coordination with the Corporation for National and Community Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we're launching the United We Serve "Feed a Neighbor" initiative. And this is a program that will provide all Americans with resources to help combat hunger in their own communities. This initiative is a great way for you, for all Americans, along with their friends and families, to give back not just during the holidays, but throughout the year. By going to serve.gov, this program will connect Americans to opportunities like delivering meals to homebound seniors, offering professional skills at a food pantry, or planting a community garden and sharing produce with neighbors.
We're also pleased to be supporting the Toys for Tots program. Over the past year, I've had the privilege of visiting servicemen and women, and their families, all across this country, and have spent much of my time in the White House working to ensure that we properly honor their service.
And each time I visit a base or meet with members of our Armed Forces and veterans, I'm struck not just by the extraordinary sacrifices they and their family make to serve our country, but by all they do to help others right here at home in their own communities.
And the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program is a great example of how servicemen and women are doing even more than just serving our country in uniform. For more than 62 years, Marines have distributed more than 400 million toys to more than 188 million needy children. And in 2008 alone, the program was active in 657 communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Marines and volunteers distributed more than 16.2 million toys that year to 7.6 million children. That was one of their best years ever.
So I'm thrilled this year that the White House staff is going to be supporting these efforts with a toy drive to help make the holidays a little brighter for children in the surrounding communities. The Toys for Tots headquarters is located outside of Marine Corps base Quantico, and I look forward to visiting there later this month to personally deliver the toys that we collect here at the White House.
So these are just two important ways that we'll be marking the holidays here at the White House. So the President and I are urging everyone to join us in these efforts, or to find some way to give back some time during this holiday season.
So on behalf of the Obama family, I wish all of you a joyous and meaningful holiday season. And it is my pleasure to introduce Toys for Tots President and CEO, Lieutenant General Pete Osman, who will provide some additional information about this year's program.
Thank you all very much.