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First Lady calls for volunteers, young Americans answer

Michelle Obama asked for more community service Monday, but rising volunteerism among Generation Y suggest it has already caught the spirit.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / June 22, 2009

First lady Michelle Obama (l.) and California first lady Maria Shriver speak to students before helping them construct playground equipment at Bret Harte Elementary School in San Francisco Monday.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

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San Francisco

First lady Michelle Obama arrived here Monday to launch a nationwide campaign to boost volunteerism, but it appears that a growing number of Americans have already answered the call to community service.

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Charity groups and service organizations across the country are seeing an increase in volunteers, and college graduates are signing up in record numbers with groups like Teach for America and AmeriCorps.

While some experts say the recession is helping to feed the ranks of service groups, others say that community organizations are also benefiting from a generational shift in how young Americans view volunteerism.

“We are seeing a spike in volunteerism” that is counter to historical trends, says Sandy Scott, spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that promotes and tracks service.

Typically during a period of high unemployment, volunteerism will drop. But during this recession, he says, many organizations are reporting a surge in inquiries for volunteer positions.

“We think that there is something else going on,” he says.

That something may be a greater emphasis placed on service by this generation of young people, he says. They came of age during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina – community service surged in the years after those events – and because of that, they are more apt to volunteer, he says.

Applications for the AmeriCorps rose 234 percent this year compared with last. Similarly, Teach for America, the program that sends America’s brightest college graduates to teach in its poorest schools, saw a 42 percent increase in applications this year. Both programs offer
participants some compensation – AmeriCorps gives money toward college and Teach for America connects graduates with paying jobs – but are considered forms of service. [Editor's note: The original version did not mention that these groups are not wholly voluntary.]

“There is more of a desire to serve the community among people in there 20s and 30s,” agrees Clive Charlwood, executive Director of One Brick, a San Francisco-based clearinghouse for volunteers. “Maybe we are getting a bit beyond the 'me' generation and into the 'us' generation.”

Still, he adds, the large number of unemployed is a key factor in the renewed interest: “There are so many people with time on their hands.”

With some 14.5 million Americans currently out of work, certainly a lot of people have time to answer the Obama administration’s call to service. Mrs. Obama appears Monday evening at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in San Francisco to mark the launch of the president’s United We Serve initiative that runs through Sept. 11, which has been declared the National Day of Service and Remembrance.

The initiative is an effort to further boost community service, a major theme during Obama’s presidential campaign, and to connect potential volunteers with charity organizations through the website, www.serve.gov.

The first lady appeared Monday afternoon at a San Francisco elementary school along with California first lady Maria Shriver to talk about the merits of community service. The two heralded a community project to fix the school’s playground as a prime example of what volunteerism can achieve.

"Imagine the changes that happened with the creation of this park. Kids who were never able to play on a swing set get the opportunity to play.... Think about the libraries that will be changed because each of us donates a book or two..., " said the first lady. "That’s what United We Serve is all about.”