September 25, 2003 01:00 PM

Giving his singing voice a rest, crooner Ricky Martin announced his new goal in life at Wednesday’s Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual gala in Washington, D.C., where he was presented the group’s first-ever Chairman’s Humanitarian Award, reports PEOPLE.

“We all have a mission in this lifetime, and I am lucky because I have found mine. People in need, people that suffer — that is my mission in life,” Martin, 31, told the audience of more than 2,000, including Democratic presidential contender Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Shoshanna Johnson, the U.S. servicewoman who was a POW in Iraq.

Mario Lopez of NBC’s “The Other Half” and Lisa Guerrero, sideline reporter for ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” served as hosts. Among the other honorees was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

As for Martin, the Puerto Rico-born heartthrob — who, after a two-year hiatus returned to work this spring with the Spanish-language album, “Almas Del Silencio” — recently established the People for Children foundation, whose aim is to focus on issues affecting children. On Thursday he was set to discuss the matters with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Human rights experts estimate that millions of children in Latin America and the Caribbean are victims of commercial exploitation, including smuggling across the border, child pornography, sex tourism, abuse of child laborers in private homes (as house cleaners and grounds workers) and child prostitution.

The chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.), presented Martin with the award, calling him “one of the hardest working humanitarians.”

Martin was also named a Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF over the summer.

“This really means a lot to me,” said Martin as he accepted the award. “I’ve been working in the music business for almost 18 years now. … But I have realized that music is only the key, the key that will help me get closer to people’s hearts.”

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