Bush call for volunteerism: Will citizens take heed?

President goes on the road to sell new USA Freedom Corps program.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The military is already mobilized. Now it is US civilians who are being called to arms.

President Bush's announcement of new government volunteer initiatives represents an unprecedented attempt to channel national emotions generated by Sept. 11 into productive community action.

That might be harder to do than it sounds. History shows that spikes of interest in volunteerism, such as occured following the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, can be transitory.

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But if there is a time when such a call can work, this might be it, say some experts. The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked a generation into a lifetime of civic involvement. Terrorist strikes on America could be this generaton's Pearl Harbor.

"In the aftermath of September's tragedy, a window of opportunity has opened for a sort of civic renewal that occurs only once or twice a century," says Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University.

In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush issued a call for civic involvement that was both general and specific.

As to the general, he asked all Americans to serve the nation for the equivalent of two years, or 4,000 hours, over their lifetime.

"In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like," said Bush.

As to the specific, the president announced the creation of a new umbrella organization called the USA Freedom Corps.

Three sub-organizations under the Freedom Corps will address three different needs, according to Bush: homeland security, community rebuilding, and international aid.

Homeland security will be the responsibility of a new Citizen Corps. Citizen Corps programs will include a Medical Reserve Corps of retired and volunteer professionals to respond to disasters, as well as a Volunteers in Police Service Program, in which civilians will free up officers by performing administrative functions. There will also be a Terrorist Information and Prevention System, which will enable transportation workers, postal employees, and public-utility workers to report suspicious activities.

Community rebuilding will be covered by an expansion of two of President Clinton's most cherished initiatives: AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. Under the Bush plan, some 25,000 new AmeriCorps workers will help generate 75,000 more local volunteers. Senior Corps will be expanded by 100,000.

International aid will be the purpose of the venerable Peace Corps. Peace Corps today is less than half its historic high of 15,000 volunteers in 1966. The administration is now proposing to regain the 15,000 level within five years, with a specific focus on efforts in Afghanistan.

The overall effort will be coordinated by a new presidential assistant. More than $560 million within the president's fiscal year 2003 budget has been earmarked for Freedom Corps purposes, according to administration officials.

"Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness, I know we can overcome evil with greater good," said Bush.

Freedom Corps, if nothing else, is likely an attempt to do something Bush did not do in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11: give ordinary Americans an opportunity to do something constructive with their anger and other emotions. Polls have shown an increase in interest in volunteerism since last year's terror attacks.

Boston University freshman Elizabeth Sexton watched Bush deliver his speech, and says that as far as she is concerned, the civilian call to volunteerism is admirable. Ms. Sexton already tutors and volunteers to help children at a local community center. Freedom Corps may be "a good way I can stay involved," she says.

Fellow BU student Jacque Caglia has volunteered at Massachusetts General Hospital and at student-run food-distribution organizations. She's also helping to organize an alternative spring-break trip, in which students will work at a nature conservancy instead of sun on the beach. "It's important especially at this time to do as much as possible," she says. "We need to take a stand and show we're not going to let what happened tear us apart as a nation."

Karen Eilers, a junior at Missouri Baptist College near St. Louis, supports the president's call to action too. Though she can't imagine taking up arms, she appreciates that volunteerism is seen as a viable alternative. She does volunteer work at Christmas. "It can make a difference. Every little bit helps," she says.

To some extent, the administration's initiative is not so much a new program as an expansion of past efforts, notes William Galston, a former adviser to President Clinton.

Virtually every governor has called for retention of AmeriCorps in recent years, in response to lukewarm support from congressional Republicans, says Mr. Galston. They've seen what it does at the ground level.

The Peace Corps has had a profound effect not just on other countries, but on the volunteers themselves. Returning Peace Corps veterans now constitute an important, internationally oriented civic network within the US.

Volunteer programs are "successful when they have a mission," says Galston. "I believe they're also successful when they help develop a kind of esprit de corps."

That being said, success is far from automatic. Funding and organization are important. Nascent volunteer groups need not just seed money but continued support and executive interest. Thus Galston says he is reviewing judgment on the Bush effort. "While it sounds promising in principle, I cannot yet figure out exactly what this plan means."

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