It's time for national service

A five-year-old child misses his bus and stands crying on a busy road. A toddler in makeshift day-care is beaten for dirtying a diaper. An elderly couple die of cold in their home. Parks are vandalized and unsafe. Young people are blown away by drugs. What's going on here, America? Why do we all have horror stories of unmet needs in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities? There is much that needs doing in our wealthy country and many of us volunteer our services, but they seem mere fingers in the dike.

There's a virtually untapped resource that could be filling many of these needs. Not just filling needs, but enhancing lives, exploring careers, building patriotism, and knitting up America's reputation as a caring, innovative society.

The resource is our young people. Yes, those same maligned young people often seen as bored with school, neglecting lessons to work for $90 jeans, or hanging around jobless and opting out of our society with crime and drugs. Have we forgotten that youth is naturally a time of energy, search, experimentation, and high idealism?

What can we do to tap this energy and idealism? One thing we can do is establish a National Youth Service Corps. Nine bills are before Congress right now to do just that. We can give them our support.

What would a national service program be like? Bill sponsors agree that it would start modestly with a few thousand recruits and would gradually increase as support staff was trained and work opportunities expanded. Volunteers from 18 to 24 years of age would apply through their local school or post office. Once accepted, they would be assisted in finding the right job for them in voluntary agencies like the Red Cross, the local hospital or library, or in a national park. Some would live at home and others would be off to the Grand Tetons or the South Bronx. The agency where the job was found would supply training, supervision, and a partial stipend. The government would pay the rest of the stipend, provide medical coverage, and award money for further education to those completing a year or two of service.

College graduates might be tutoring high school dropouts who in turn might be helping third-graders with their reading. Volunteers might be building a camp in a national forest where city kids could spend a week learning what nature is all about. Those monitoring air, water, and noise pollution could learn the scientific basis of their measuring devices as well as the causes of pollution. Others might be refurbishing abandoned housing. A highway rescue team might be manning a helicopter. Why not? Our young people successfully handled such demanding jobs in wartime. Why not ask them to help build our country in peacetime?

Have we any idea whether national service would work? Yes, there have been several programs in the last 50 years showing great promise for solving national problems with youthful energy. The Civilian Conservation Corps gave work and training to 3 million young men from 1933 to 1942. Roads, bridges, and lodges in our national parks attest to their useful work. Today, former CCC workers proudly bring their grandchildren to see that what they built still stands.

The Peace Corps, now 26 years old, has enhanced America's reputation abroad and is a source of pride at home. American know-how and can-do philosophy have given real assistance in developing countries, and the impact has been great considering the program's small size. The even smaller domestic Peace Corps, VISTA, has turned lives around for many disadvantaged young Americans. There is the Young Adult Conservation Corps of the Carter years, and current youth conservation corps in California, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington. New York and San Francisco have local youth service programs, as do Israel, Indonesia, Nigeria, and West Germany, to name a few.

National surveys and polls for the past 20 years have shown that a majority of Americans think national service is a good idea. So what's holding it up? Some people worry about involuntary servitude. Only one of the nine bills calls for mandatory national service. Other people worry about undercutting the military. Several national service bills include voluntary military service as one option. Others worry about the cost. The National Service Secretariat, which has been studying national service for over 20 years, estimates a total cost of $11,000 per participant per year.

With the value of services rendered expected to outstrip program costs, and with the additional benefits of work experience, career exploration, and lower crime rates, national service is an investment worth making.

Research over the past 20 years has consistently shown a need for the services of some 4 million young people in such fields as conservation, education, health, child, and elder care. Innovative local programs, like one in Seattle, have demonstrated that the nation could easily absorb 100,000 youth service participants. Could it absorb 40 times that number? With a steady but gradual buildup over several years, the nation's ability to absorb youth service could be determined.

It behooves us to get behind a national service program. Our young people would benefit from the work experience and feeling of self worth. Contributing a period of time and effort to serving the needs of our country ought to be the right of every young person. Being needed and serving builds loyalty to one's own country. We'd all benefit.

Donald J. Eberly is executive director of The Coalition for National Service in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Louise K. Eberly, taught in Nigeria in the 1950s. She is also a free-lance feature writer.

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