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Extending a Hand, If Schedule Permits

A high-powered meeting this weekend will push a renewal of volunteerism

(Page 2 of 2)

"Institutions, namely the schools, have realized that students learn about a lot of things if they are out there helping the community."

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The US may reap that benefit for years to come, experts say, because the earlier someone gets involved in volunteer work, the more likely the habit will continue for a lifetime.

Preliminary results of a survey of 1,600 former University of Virginia students found that the graduate who hadn't volunteered in college averaged less than two hours a week in volunteer work. Those who had done community service in college averaged an extra hour a week, a huge jump in terms of charity work.

Students often do this work for less-than-altruistic reasons - to spruce up a rsum or college application. Retirees also have other motives for volunteering - to substitute for their previous work or to feel connected to the community.

The two groups tend to work for different kinds of organizations. While students donate time to secular groups, such as those involved in environmental issues, church is the No. 1 volunteer activity of retirees. Of senior volunteers, 36 percent of those who volunteered cited churches as their primary volunteer sites, says Norah Peters, chair of the sociology department at Beaver College in Philadelphia who is conducting an ongoing study. That was nearly three times the No. 2 site and held true for men as well as women.

"The core of voluntarism is still built around congregations and churches," says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.

Can churches make a difference? Some observers are optimistic because church membership tends to be a long-term rather than short-term commitment.

"Don't lose sight of the enormous reservoir of energy in our churches," says Steven Nock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. "I look to religious organizations as the front line here."

Another resource is the corporation. Many are starting to offer incentives, such as time off, to encourage charitable activity. After seeing voluntarism among its employees dip from 82 percent in 1992 to 56 percent in the second quarter of 1996, AT&T began its AT&T Cares program, which stopped the downturn.

But few, if any, observers believe volunteers can make up for government cuts in welfare and other social programs.

For one thing, they lack the intense training and sensitivity to intervene in family-crisis situations, says Dr. Peters. "I'm not sure volunteers can fill in the gaps."

Nor should they, argues Adam Meyerson, vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington: "We should not look to voluntarism to fix government's failures."

Instead of asking volunteers to teach children how to read, as Mr. Clinton has, society should focus on why schools haven't accomplished it themselves, he says.