Two months ago, I had the privilege of visiting His Holy Father Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. It was my third meeting with His Holy Father since I took office, and for those of you who have ever met him, you know I'm telling you the truth when I tell you being in his presence is an awesome experience. He is a true presence. On the occasion, I had the special honor of presenting him with America's highest civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was my chance to express our nation's respect for a devoted servant of God and a true hero of our time.
Pope John Paul II has been a unique and commanding voice for the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the outcast. He has challenged our nation, and the entire world, to embrace the culture of life. He's called upon us to uphold and affirm the dignity of every person, rich and poor, able and disabled, born and unborn. He's called us to love and serve our neighbors in need. Few organizations have worked harder and done more and met this challenge than the Knights of Columbus. I know you're proud of your organization, and you should be.
The Knights were born in New Haven, Connecticut. Come to think of it, so was I. From your foundations in a small church basement, you have raised up one of the great American organizations dedicated to charity and mutual assistance and the fight for civil liberties.
I'm proud to say that my family has contributed to your ranks. A few years ago, Governor Jeb became a Knight. And he he recently took his Third Degree. I'll see him this weekend. His son is getting married. I'll pass on the word, aim for the Fourth. Jeb knows, as I do, that your works of mercy are making our society more compassionate, changing the lives of millions of citizens. Compassionate work changes our society one heart and one soul at a time.
Last year, the Knights raised and donated a record $130 million to charity. That's a phenomenal record. You also volunteered for an unprecedented 61 million hours of community service. You obviously have heard the call.
I was pleased to hear this story about the Knights in Corpus Christi, Texas, at the Mother Teresa Day Shelter. They're a daily presence there -- they're mopping the floors, collecting laundry soap, blankets, and food for 130 homeless men and women. They're not giving the orders, they're serving the people. Patricia Henry, the shelter director, put it this way: "If I need help, I just give the Knights a call." Such a powerful example. Americans across this great land know that they can do the same, that they can serve our country by helping someone in need.
We're grateful for your service to the men and women in uniform and to our nation's veterans. You've sent hundreds of thousands of prayer books to those working to make our country more secure and to bring freedom in parts of the world that are desperate for freedom. You bring comfort and strength to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. I want to thank you for taking time to visit our wounded and disabled veterans, for providing comfort to their families, to give them a word of thanks.
See, the Knights are soldiers in the armies of compassion. You're foot soldiers. You've heard the call. You're helping this nation build a culture of life in which the sick are comforted, the aged are honored, the immigrant is welcomed, and the weak and vulnerable are never overlooked. You have a friend in this administration. You have somebody who wants to work with you to change America for the better.
We have a responsibility in government to do things to help overcome recession and corporate scandal. It's easier to be a hopeful society when people are working. That's why I put forth an economic stimulus plan to encourage small business growth, a plan that will help get jobs moving, so people can work and do their duty as a mom or a dad and put food on the table. And we're making progress.
When I came to Washington, I was concerned about a school system that simply shuffled children through grade after grade, year after year, and hoped for the best. Oftentimes, what we found out was kids with great hearts were graduating from schools, but couldn't read. I challenged the soft bigotry of low expectations by raising the bar, insisting on high standards, by making sure the money we spent -- and we did spend more money -- went to help those who needed extra help early, before it was too late. I believe you've got to measure in order to know. If you believe a child can read, you've got to measure to determine whether or not that child is reading, and if not, get them help early, before it's too late.
Because we measure, we know that now more minority children are learning to read at grade level, and that's good for America. I want to thank the Knights for their help in helping low-income parents in Washington, D.C. have their children escape from schools that will not teach and will not change. Because of the work of the Knights of Columbus, and other concerned citizens in our Nation's Capital, poor parents now have a choice. They'll have a $7,500 scholarship so they can afford to send their child to a private school or parochial school, their choice to make.
You know, one of the great statistics of this modern era is the fact that more people are owning their own home. It seems like to me, an optimistic society is one that encourages ownership, more people owning their own business, people owning and managing their own health care account, people own[ing] a piece of their retirement policy that they can pass on from one generation to the next, and people owning their own home. I love a society in which more and more people are able to say, welcome to my home; come to my home.
This country has added more than 1.6 million minority homeowners in the past two years. Today, the American homeownership rate is the highest ever, and the highest ever for minorities. When you own something you have a vital stake in the future of your country.
I want to work with the Knights for reasonable and compassionate immigration reform, to bring good, hardworking people out of the shadows of American life, and to ensure that America is always a welcoming nation. I recognize, like you recognize, that amidst the great prosperity of America, amongst our great wealth, there are pockets of despair in this country, and we've got to do something about it. We must address despair so America is hopeful for every single person.
See, we got fellow citizens who are trapped in the misery of drugs and gang violence and the collapse of the family. Our society and our government have a responsibility -- you have a responsibility, those of us honored to hold high office have a responsibility. We're doing some practical things. We've got a community-wide effort to help educate kids to the dangers of using drugs. We believe in collaborative efforts; people all throughout society must work to reduce the demand for drugs. Listen, we'll do all we can to bust the thugs, interdict the drugs coming in from overseas. But we've got to work on demand. And teen use of drugs is down by 11 percent from 2001 to 2003. That's a hopeful sign. A hopeful America is where our children are learning.
There's a lot of work to be done on health care, but one place I know we can continue to work together on is health care for the poorest of the poor. We've expanded and built over 600 community health centers in America. I want to double the number, so the 16 million poor Americans can get primary health care without putting a strain on the emergency rooms of our hospitals, whether they be public or private.
We've got to work on additional welfare reforms to help people find a job, help them have the skills necessary to work, so they realize the dignity that comes from being independent from government, and at the same time, strengthen marriage and the family as part of welfare reforms.
But I believe one of the most effective ways our government can help those in need is to help the charities and community groups that are doing God's work every day. That's what I believe government ought to do. I believe government needs to stand on the side of faith-based groups, not against faith-based groups, when they come to saving lives.