Points of Light in Service

November 17, 1990

President Bush's signing of the National Community Service Act is welcome indeed. Mr. Bush walked into the White House calling for "a thousand points of light" in volunteer service, but his administration follows one that cut the funding of government agencies coordinating such efforts.

National service for young people has been debated extensively for the past two decades. Although it is considered a good idea in the abstract, questions have arisen. Would it amount to a draft for peacetime service only for disadvantaged students who cannot afford tuition fees? Should community service be rewarded with forgiveness of student loans, an idea dropped from the measure? Despite Mr. Bush's dislike of the financial incentives which remain, it is a good law nonetheless.

Key provisions establish a Commission on National and Community Service to coordinate activities, give grants to states for planning and building community service programs in the schools and in the nation's colleges, establish an American Conservation and Youth Corps and provide full- and part-time service corps for young people already in the labor market. Assistance is provided for the Peace Corps, VISTA and Head Start as well.

One key provision offers grants to "Governors' Innovative Service Programs." Here, Maryland has an advantage. Its Student Service Alliance program has in place a public-service curriculum, the only one of its kind, which during 1989-90 saw more than 1,500 students in 50 schools in 19 counties earn credit for community service.

Nationwide, 60 volunteer corps programs are reported up and running, with little or no federal funding. Last summer, more than 100,000 youths helped care for the handicapped, tutored children, tended municipal parks and volunteered in hospitals. Some programs, such as New York's City Volunteer Corps, also pay modest stipends, prep volunteers for General Equivalency Diploma tests and offer bonuses to help pay for college.

The momentum of these programs needed a boost, and the federal thrust is a good one. Community service work is often contagious; young people who begin in school-based programs often find vocations that motivate them to go onward. And volunteers of all ages often find the work rewarding and discover new things about their own abilities. Those who turn on lights light up their own lives.

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