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Pro: Government Needed to Focus Volunteer Efforts

The National Service Debate

By Donald J. EberlyDonald J. Eberly is executive director of the National Service Secretariat in Washington. His most recent book is ``National Service: A Promise to Keep.'' / June 21, 1989



NATIONAL service has returned to the American agenda because President Bush made a campaign promise to create and chair a national service foundation if elected president, and because Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia introduced legislation this year that would link national service with grants and loans for higher education. The right kind of national service for America - call it National Youth Service (NYS) - is neither as flashy as Mr. Bush's 1,000 points of light, nor as controversial as Senator Nunn's proposal for a citizens' corps. Unlike the most controversial part of Senator Nunn's proposal, NYS is based on well-tested and successful programs. Unlike the President's proposal, which apparently would do little more than exhort young people to become unpaid volunteers, NYS would challenge all young people to volunteer for a year or two of full-time civilian service. They would be asked to serve needy old folks and children, the poor and the homeless, the illiterate and the ill-housed, those imprisoned and in mental institutions; and to tackle our polluted air, our acid rain, and our scarred earth.

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Under NYS, service activities would be directed and financed at the local level to the extent permitted by available resources, with a federally supported national foundation underwriting such activities. Participants would extend the outreach of existing agencies by adding to - not substituting for - what is being done by regular employees and volunteers. They would receive a stipend during service, followed by a GI bill for further education and training.

Today there are about 9,000 18- to 24-year-olds in programs - such as the Peace Corps, VISTA, and the California Conservation Corps - that might be classified as NYS. Experience and research tells us that NYS participants perform services valued at more than the cost of the program. The work experience and training they acquire increases their chances of getting jobs. Their opportunities for exploring careers lead to happier and more productive career choices. Many of them move on to further education and training with a clear sense of direction. They become more aware of the needs of others.

What is needed now is to create a national service foundation that would focus on two areas. First, it would build on the present firm foundation by offering to help support existing programs, as well as new state and local youth service initiatives. Second, it would inform the national service debate by conducting pilot projects to determine (a) what choices young people would make when assured the chance of doing either civilian or military service, and (b) the number of national service workers a community can usefully engage. A third useful activity would be to provide part of the salaries of ``service-learning coordinators'' at high schools and colleges to encourage high-quality volunteer service by students.

Although the cost of NYS would be greater than that of Bush's proposal, I am convinced it would yield a higher ratio of benefits to costs. How to pay for it? Let's turn our swords into plowshares by paying for NYS from the savings resulting from the expected cutbacks in the number of people in active-duty military service. Bush's planned reduction of 30,000 troops would finance some 60,000 young people in NYS. That would be several times the number now in NYS. Let's do it.