WASHINGTON — Over the past year, twentysomething volunteer Stefan Reinhold has been teaching children to read, repairing national park trails in the high country of Colorado, and battling blazes as part of a hot-shot Florida fire crew.
The past weeks in particular have been tough. Working alongside the chisel-faced professional firemen, he's been wearing a bright yellow fire-resistant suit and putting in long hours in the maddening jungle heat.
You might think he's some kind of Gen-X action hero. But actually Mr. Reinhold's good deeds are a routine part of being a team leader at AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps created in 1993.
And increasingly, he's not alone in doing good. Boosted by everything from school volunteer programs to promotion by US presidents, the notion of taking time out for service is slowly growing among young people - even as national service is gaining acceptance on Capitol Hill.
For instance, the number of national-service volunteers - who swap a year of volunteering for a stipend and $4,700 in tuition - has grown from 20,000 in 1996 to 40,000 today.
And in Congress - where legislators this week are debating an expansion of President Clinton's prized program - national service has quietly moved from being a political target to gaining bipartisan backing.
"As AmeriCorps develops and the word about it gets out, it is growing," says Reinhold from a pay phone at a fire command post in Volusia County, Fla. "The learning experience is immeasurable."
The program is still far from being the broad national movement Mr. Clinton envisioned during his 1992 campaign. And funding levels are still in dispute among some Republicans. But the attitude in Congress toward national service has changed dramatically since 1994. Back then, "it became a trophy [Clinton] put on his shoulder, something tempting to shoot at," says Harris Wofford, director of the Corporation for National Service, the umbrella organization that coordinates the six national service programs, including AmeriCorps.
BUT this year's request for $780 million would be the highest yet for the corporation. Its programs engage in a wide range of community projects including tutoring, drug- and violence-prevention programs in schools, community-center construction, and building homes alongside groups such as Habitat for Humanity, a favorite project of former President Jimmy Carter.
While gains have been made to enroll greater numbers, still unrealized is the national groundswell the president hoped to effect early on.
"Candidate Clinton in '92 talked about national service at virtually every opportunity and garnered enthusiastic support," recalls William Galston, executive director of The National Commission on Civic Renewal, a nonprofit group here.
"Whether this is becoming a transformative national movement remains to be seen," he says.
This month also marks the 25th anniversary of the end of compulsory military service, which had been in place since World War II.
While there is virtually no desire to reinstate the draft, some social observers bemoan the loss of the ancillary benefits created by the program - a sense of national community, an understanding of other cultures created by serving side by side in a diverse corps, and a duty to country.
"In our national value system we have gotten away from the idea that citizenship includes obligations to the collective good, not just enjoying its benefits," says David Segal, a University of Maryland sociology professor.
In the absence of a compulsory national program Dr. Segal suggests, today's teens and young adults are more disconnected from national duty, the political process, and each other.
"People of my generation, folks who went to college in the 1960s and '70s, now worry about low voter turnout and fraying of the social fabric," says June Speakman, a political science professor studying the community-service movement at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.
Cohesive societal values are woven when people from different social groups and races work together for a common purpose: "National service is a way to bring the fabric together, nudge them toward a social conscience," she says.
But there is anecdotal evidence that the current wave of young adults want to keep that fabric from fraying too.
Applications to the Peace Corps are up 10 percent. AmeriCorps has doubled since 1996. And City Year, a private national-service organization has grown from one city in 1988 to nine today. A new City Year affiliate will open in Seattle in September.
Interest in volunteerism has escalated in recent years among all age groups, but those ages 17 to 22 are "the fastest-rising group of volunteers," says Leslie Crutchfield, founder and editor of Who Cares magazine, a Washington-based service publication that has tripled its subscriptions since 1993 to nearly 50,000. "Ten years ago there were very few youth-corps groups across the country," she says.
In addition to presidential efforts to bring volunteerism into the mainstream, including George Bush's "Points of Light" campaign, some observers say young adults are turning away from the narcissistic attitudes of the '70s and '80s.
"I think that era is over, and I think we are going back to an era of more concern for community, less for individuals, and national service will be more appealing," says John Norton, a political science professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.