A boost for volunteering

Our view: Expansion of AmeriCorps program is good news in bad times

April 14, 2009

In Maryland and across the nation, there is increased awareness and interest in volunteering and giving back. But many don't know where or how to get started. Now, there is a new way. In one of the most sweeping overhauls of the country's national service programs since the 1960s, Congress has passed and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature a bill that is expected to drastically increase the size and scope of AmeriCorps, the government's largest volunteer organization and the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps.

AmeriCorps already makes big contributions in dozens of communities across Maryland, where 1,300 of the organization's volunteers lead the efforts of thousands more. Its contributions are particularly important when the economy is down and government services are being cut back or eliminated, as they are today. But even in a booming economy, AmeriCorps is a good investment. It helps communities make improvements and provide services they otherwise could not afford. It helps many deserving young people get the education they otherwise might not be able to obtain.

The new legislation will increase the number of federally subsidized opportunities for volunteering each year from 75,000 to 250,000, while also expanding the program's mission by creating new "service corps" devoted to clean energy and health care.

Lawmakers aren't asking Americans to serve for nothing. Would-be volunteers interested in programs ranging from tutoring disadvantaged kids to building affordable housing will also be offered an array of new educational incentives. Those include an increase in the college stipend to $5,350 for a year of service, and a $1,000 education award for older participants who volunteer for at least 350 hours, which can be passed on to their children or grandchildren.

Democrats and Republicans alike have come to view this national service program as a wise, cost-effective investment in the nation's future. Based on past patterns, the 250,000 AmeriCorps members are expected to recruit or manage 7 million unpaid volunteers.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said the AmeriCorps expansion "will pay dividends long beyond anything that we can imagine."

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