New duties, new recruits fuel youth corps
Since Sept. 11, AmeriCorps attracts bipartisan support, hundreds more volunteers
Ryan Morra is barely out of high school. But the young man has found himself in a far more demanding job than he ever imagined: interviewing families who lost relatives at the World Trade Center attacks.
The teenage volunteer helps make sure families get enough money to survive the next three months.
Mr. Morra, who works at the Family Assistance Center in New York, is one of thousands of young people looking to help their country by serving in AmeriCorps - and their ranks have been growing since Sept. 11.
Since the attacks, the number of people expressing interest in a 10-month to two-year AmeriCorps tour of duty jumped by 30 percent - from 1,100 to 1,400 a week.
Bipartisan legislation currently making its way through Congress seeks to harness such zeal by turning the program into the largest national service effort since Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, outpacing even its more famous sibling, the Peace Corps.
Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana have proposed expanding the number of participants, who currently do everything from tutoring inner-city youths to cleaning hiking trails, from 50,000 to 250,000 over the next decade.
The president has signaled his approval for the program in recent speeches, calling the 18- to 24-year-old recruits the perfect foot soldiers in the domestic battle against terrorism.
"You really do see this bipartisan coalescence bringing to bear the optimism and enthusiasm of youth," says Mark Gearan, a former director of the Peace Corps and Clinton aide.
Even traditional critics of the program seem to be at least softening their opposition. "The Bush administration wants it," says Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for overseeing AmeriCorps. "With a series of reforms, it could be a program that most conservatives would buy into."
Representative Hoekstra has promised to push through AmeriCorps's reauthorization next year, and says he's keeping an open mind about expansion. But his reservations, particularly about the program's finances, remain.
AmeriCorps has been viewed with skepticism by many conservatives since former President Clinton proposed it in 1993 as a way to encourage young people who might not be interested in working in government to serve their country.
Currently, volunteers have been dispersed in 1,000 communities throughout the country. AmeriCorps members, who are mostly students on their way into or out of college, receive a modest living allowance and a $4,725 educational award at the end of their service.
With only small squads of AmeriCorps members in any given place, the program remained invisible to most Americans, says Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos. For example, a 1995 national survey found that more high school students had heard of the Depression-era CCC than AmeriCorps.
Senators McCain and Bayh want to enlist at least half of the proposed 250,000 recruits, plus thousands more senior-citizen volunteers, into homeland defense. The expanded corps would cost an additional $2.6 billion its first year, McCain estimates.
That's a role President Bush encouraged two weeks ago, when he called on Americans to help fight terrorism by "making a commitment of service in our own communities."
For example, 19 AmeriCorps volunteers patrol parks and schools in Clearwater, Fla., while assigned to the city's police department. "They're the eyes and ears of the police department, and they make residents feel safer," says Clearwater Deputy Police Chief Dewey Williams.
In the future, AmeriCorps participants could also help lead immunization drives in the event of another biological-weapons attack or do backroom work in police and fire stations to free up rescue workers, says Leslie Lenkowsky, new chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps.
Dr. Moskos says AmeriCorps volunteers might even reinforce customs inspectors and airport security guards, after receiving the same length of training given federal law-enforcement agents.
But enlisting and managing another 200,000 recruits would be a big challenge, says Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor who now chairs the board of directors that oversees AmeriCorps.
"It takes a lot of effort to screen, train, and deploy them," says Mr. Goldsmith.
And some congressional leaders remain skeptical about expanding AmeriCorps's mission too far. "You've got to be very, very careful," says Hoekstra. "You don't just put untrained people as a first line of defense."
But Morra, who signed up with Americorps after graduating from a Connecticut high school last year, says he can't think of a place he'd rather be.
"It's been quite intense and emotionally exhausting," says Morra, But, he adds, "There's nothing better that I can be doing with my time right now than helping these people."