Let volunteer corps help out even more

October 30, 2003|By John Bridgeland

AS THE MASSIVE cleanup efforts from last month's Hurricane Isabel continue, hundreds of Americans who were injured, lost their homes or were displaced are receiving a helping hand from AmeriCorps members.

Last year, AmeriCorps, through the American Red Cross, assisted at least 246,000 people affected by disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires. They helped victims and their families, distributed food and clothing, and recruited and managed volunteers.

It is all the more important that Congress provides the full funding President Bush requested to grow AmeriCorps from 50,000 to 75,000 members.

Not only is AmeriCorps vital in the face of a devastating hurricane, but its success is critical to addressing many urgent needs across America.

AmeriCorps participants receive small stipends and education awards to serve full or part time in schools, police departments, conservation corps, Indian tribes and community and faith-based organizations. They tutor and mentor children, build affordable homes, teach computer skills, clean parks and streams and run after-school programs.

The good work of AmeriCorps is one part of a much larger culture of service that the president's USA Freedom Corps is helping to foster.

Senior Corps, a program that mobilizes 500,000 older Americans to mentor children, care for other seniors and help meet critical community needs, recruited an additional 25,000 volunteers, and is on track to support 600,000 seniors in regular community service.

More than 830 communities in 50 states and two territories have established Citizen Corps Councils to coordinate volunteer efforts to prepare for emergencies of all kinds, including terrorism. The number of Neighborhood Watch programs is already close to doubling; programs placing volunteers in police departments have increased sevenfold; a new Medical Reserve Corps is deploying medical personnel to aid in emergencies in dozens of communities; and Community Emergency Response Team training is available in 635 localities nationwide.

Hundreds of businesses with more than 4 million employees are making changes in corporate practices to enlist their employees in service to communities. And schools are connecting classroom lessons from American history with service experiences in communities.

Abroad, more than 7,600 Peace Corps volunteers - up from 6,600 a year ago - are serving in 71 countries. The Peace Corps remains on track to meet the president's goal of doubling its number of volunteers over five years.

A new Volunteers for Prosperity initiative is enlisting American professionals for flexible term assignments abroad to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, bring clean water to the poor and help open new markets.

Americans have found it easier to serve because they have more information than ever. The USA Freedom Corps Volunteer Network - the most comprehensive online volunteer clearinghouse ever created - connects Americans with more than 1 million service opportunities in their own neighborhoods and in countries around the world through community - and in some cases federally supported - organizations. Many volunteers are expressly serving now to honor the victims of 9/11.

Like these highly successful programs, AmeriCorps provides an avenue for tens of thousands of Americans who want to serve. AmeriCorps members also recruit and mobilize 10 times their number, enabling half a million volunteers to meet important needs.

AmeriCorps was tested by overwhelming numbers of Americans who wanted to serve. Overenrollments last year and subsequent cuts in funding resulted in fewer new service posts this year for those willing to give a full year or more to their country.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps, is addressing long-standing tracking and management problems aggressively. New management reforms and systems have been put in place so AmeriCorps can better fulfill its mission.

The president is requesting $962 million for national service, including $433 million to help strengthen and expand AmeriCorps. This investment not only enables 75,000 AmeriCorps members to serve, but also helps enlist hundreds of thousands of additional volunteers in meaningful service.

As the funding process moves forward, let's hope Congress will fully support the president's commitment to AmeriCorps and help make needed reforms to strengthen and expand it.

Together, we can foster a culture of service and citizenship that can last for decades to come.

John Bridgeland is assistant to the president and director of the USA Freedom Corps at the White House.

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