Many calling, few are helping

Widespread belief in volunteerism sparks little action

War On Terrorism

November 21, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Marcos Castillo, who handles emergency services for the Red Cross in Maryland, figured that with all the talk of self-sacrifice after the Sept. 11 attacks, he could easily find 30 instructors for a new disaster relief training program serving the Baltimore-Washington area. But after nearly 1,000 phone calls, Castillo managed to lure just 14 volunteers.

When orientation began recently, the room was half-empty.

"I thought I was going to be getting a lot of responses, but I didn't see that," said Castillo, who had just a month to find people who would immediately serve for a year.

"A lot of people wanted to join the program, but they couldn't do it that fast - some needed to quit jobs, some needed to finish leases, some had to move here from around the country. A lot of people were interested, but for many reasons they realized it was not that feasible."

This is the problem confronting nonprofit groups after the terrorist strikes: Though Americans express overwhelming belief in the value of public service, many organizations report that, beyond the initial donations and volunteer efforts in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the number of people committing to public service work remains about the same.

In a recent speech, President Bush hailed Americans for their generosity, arguing that since the terrorist attacks, many Americans were "rethinking their career choices" and deciding on careers in public service. Young people in particular, he said, are being drawn in new numbers to jobs in law enforcement, emergency health care, public schools and the military.

But many public-service groups have not reported an increase in actual participation - only greater curiosity in their work since the attacks. Phone calls and Web site hits to many volunteer organizations are up, civic groups say, but they add that casual interest does not always translate into action.

The case of the Air Force recruiting center is fairly typical: On Sept. 12, calls on the recruiting line nearly tripled. But officials said the feverish attention did not yield more enlistees. In September, the same number of people expressed serious interest in joining as did in September of the previous year.

"You have lots of people who are inquisitive, lots of people asking questions, but this is a career choice - you don't make it based on a patriotic decision in one evening," said Maj. Terry Bowman, an Air Force recruiting spokesman.

"You're saying you're willing to lay down your life if called upon to defend your country. It's an incredible responsibility, and it's tough to do."

Certainly, a vast majority of Americans responded to the Sept. 11 devastation by volunteering. A poll last month by Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporations, found that 70 percent of 1,009 adults surveyed gave blood, money or time after the attacks.

The Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, which by chance was conducting a poll about charitable giving when the attacks occurred, found that on Sept. 10, 38 percent of people surveyed said they had volunteered in the past year. That number jumped to 51 percent immediately after the attacks, according to the poll of 800 people around the state.

Yesterday, the White House released a public service announcement featuring President Bush and his wife, Laura, in an advertising campaign emphasizing the importance of service and citizenship.

The "Thanks for Giving" ad, which will run on all the major television networks and cable outlets through the holiday period, features the couple in a homey setting at a barn on their Texas ranch. In the spot, they ask Americans to give to charities or join volunteer efforts that have sprung up in the wake of Sept. 11.

Separately, the White House is supporting the creation of new civil defense brigades organized through federal community service programs. The president has called for volunteers to these brigades to help law enforcement agencies perform routine tasks, such as fingerprinting and paperwork, so that emergency crews can carry out more urgent duties.

The White House also envisions a broader group of "September 11th Volunteers" whose duties could include tutoring children, helping in hospitals and pitching in with the USO.

But political analysts do not see the start of a new era of volunteerism. Even as the White House calls for a new spirit of civic-mindedness, they argue, it also urges Americans to continue their lives as usual, without making any real sacrifices. The result, critics say, is that civic responsibility does not become a national priority.

"The administration is offering a mixed message," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

"They're saying, `Give up the good life,' but at the same time, `Go down to the mall and spend.' On this score, they haven't sharpened their message in such a way that it's going to create lines at recruiting offices for the Marine Corps or the Peace Corps."

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