Nonprofits launch effort on 9/11 to boost volunteerism

The campaign hopes to increase the ranks of American volunteers from 61 million to 100 million by 2020.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A TEAM EFFORT: Volunteers of the nonprofit, Rebuilding Together, fix up a school in Providence, R.I.
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Service. It's one concept that everyone in the United States can rally around, even amid partisan election battles. It's a way for people to mark the 9/11 anniversary, triumphing over tragedy one good deed at a time.

But how can that desire to serve be channeled more effectively into meeting America's challenges? Organizers of the ServiceNation campaign, and a related summit in New York Sept. 11-12, hope to answer that and inspire millions more Americans to step up their volunteerism.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama plan to appear at a presidential candidates' forum on service and civic engagement at Columbia University Sept. 11. The public can submit questions for the candidates at tinyurl.com/6jmhd5. Several news channels intend to broadcast the 8 p.m. forum.

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About 61 million Americans volunteer each year. ServiceNation – backed by a coalition of more than 110 groups – aims to bump that number up to 100 million by 2020.

It's "a grass-roots movement unlike any before," says John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy group in Washington that is organizing ServiceNation along with City Year, Be the Change Inc., and the Points of Light Institute.

Americans of all ages "clearly have this appetite to serve … and we want to create more choices – whether it's traditional volunteering or full-time service or military service – more opportunities to step forward and do something big for their country."

More than 600 summit participants are expected from nonprofits, government, business, and the arts, including notables such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently created the first state cabinet position to oversee service.

A policy agenda will be unveiled at the summit, including proposals for service corps focused on areas such as education, disaster response, and communities' conversion to clean energy.

"We're not trying to grow service for service's sake … [but] because it can solve problems," says Tim Zimmermann, spokesman for Be the Change Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill are also promoting bills to expand national service opportunities.

On the heels of the summit comes a national "Day of Action" Sept. 27. Local organizers have planned more than 1,500 events, including a "Graffiti Wipeout" in Gresham, Ore., and cleanup of a pelican habitat in Miami (see events.servicenation.org).

Students at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., will spruce up parks and host recreational activities for a local group of special-needs kids.

"Every class [of incoming students] is even more dedicated to service and helping," says Sarah Mielbye, a Wheaton senior who interned with ServiceNation.

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