The star helps out a D.C. grade school the afternoon before the Inauguration

January 20, 2009 05:30 AM

When President-elect Barack Obama urged Americans to embrace of a new spirit of community service, Usher took that message to heart.

The pop star pumped up grade-schoolers and other volunteers with handshakes, jokes and words of praise as they repainted walls and built two libraries at Simon Elementary School in southeast D.C. – an area with a high dropout rate – on the afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

During a feed to Oprah Winfrey‘s live show from the Kennedy Center Opera House, the singer talked up the need for volunteerism – even working in a reference to Aristotle – before cuing the kids to yell, “Go serve!” to her audience.

“You notice that I’m not focusing on the [Inaugural] celebration, I’m focusing on the work, because that’s what it’s about,” Usher, 30, tells PEOPLE. His own non-profit organization, Usher’s New Look Foundation, has been giving underprivileged kids leadership training since 1999.

But the day, spearheaded by MTV’s Be the Change campaign and ServiceNation, was hardly celebration-free.

After one Simon Elementary student, Ronnell Smith, 9, recited a portion of Obama’s Nov. 4 speech, he also busted a pop-and-lock routine, earning a slap-me-five from Usher.

And earlier that morning, two superheroes swooped in on the school: Spider-Man‘s Tobey Maguire and Superman‘s Brandon Routh also stopped by to aid in the beautification efforts.

Big Inauguration Weekend

The Grammy winner’s best moment so far? Hitting the Lincoln Memorial stage with Stevie Wonder and Shakira to sing “Higher Ground” at the We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration.

“Being a part of this history has been the most memorable,” says Usher, who’s bringing four of his New Look students – Arnold La France, 18, James Harris, 19, Mia Barnett, 19, and Chantia Robinson, 19 – to the Inauguration itself as a reward for helping to recruit hundreds of previously unregistered voters in New Orleans, Kansas City and Atlanta.

After Sunday’s show, Usher, his wife Tameka Foster, 00, and her sons Ryan, 9, and Kyle, 7, snapped photos with Michelle Obama, and her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. (Usher and Tameka’s two young sons, Usher Raymond V, 2, and 1-month-old Naveid Ely Raymond weren’t there because “It’s too cold here,” says Foster.)

Turns out, both Usher and his wife had a little matchmaking on the brain.

“Based off of what I know about Michelle and what I’ve seen from Barack, Sasha and Malia are going to grow up to be two incredible, beautiful young ladies,” says Usher, adding with a grin, “that my sons will marry!”