Service Ethic Returns With New Domestic `Peace Corps'

FORGING the vision for the Peace Corps, President Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, ``To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves.''

Today, President Clinton joins 1,000 young volunteers on the White House lawn and more than 14,000 others by satellite to initiate them into his inaugural vision: a national service program known as ``AmeriCorps.''

Although AmeriCorps is operating on a vision borrowed from the Peace Corps and its domestic relative, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Mr. Clinton's program is bigger - and initially more popular.

Charged with ``getting things done,'' 20,000 volunteers - versus 6,500 Peace Corps volunteers - will be dispatched this year to inner cities and rural areas to work with community organizations in the areas of education, public safety, human needs, and the environment.

In return, AmeriCorps participants will get a bonus that Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers do not: up to $9,450 to help pay for an education.

According the Eli Segal, director of the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that runs the program, ``There are well in excess of 100,000 young people ... eager to participate in AmeriCorps.''

Clinton hopes that eventually all 100,000 will be able to join. The budget for the program, which begins Oct. 1, is $300 million - compared with the Peace Corp's $219 million. For next year, Clinton wants to double the budget, but he will need to convince Congress of the merits of the program.

Why such a resounding response so far? ``There is a trend toward a greater social conscience,'' says Linda Sax of the Los Angeles-based Higher Education Research Institute, which surveys 240,000 college freshmen each year.

``Students are more committed to social issues than they have been since the '60s,'' she says. ``They care about issues like race, the environment, and family.''

But at the same time, she says, ``they are also more realistic'' - an attitude she attributes to the tough circumstances in which many youths grow up.

Both attitudes - idealism and realism - seem to work in Clinton's favor and make-up the strong response to his program.

Four weeks ago, for instance, Sandra Hollinger returned from a two-year Peace Corps tour in Botswana.

Still bursting with idealism, she became an AmeriCorps trainer. Working for a ``Weed and Seed'' program in Philadelphia, Ms. Hollinger will train AmeriCorps volunteers to provide social services, build community gardens, and organize anti-drug vigils.

``In Botswana, the ethic of service is just a part of the people,'' but in the United States, she says, ``there was a lull during which we thought `me, me, me.' ''

``Getting that ethic of service back - that's what we're all about,'' she says. ``We want to instill the ethic that serving is something they always do - from cradle to grave.''

Yet, idealism aside, a strong desire to improve one's own situation brings other volunteers to AmeriCorps. Milton Mitchell, for instance, has been hammering, hauling, and heaving for three months to build an environmentally sensitive house in a low-income neighborhood in Austin, Texas.

When he and the rest of the crew in the Casa Verde Builders Program begin their next house, they will be rewarded as official AmeriCorps volunteers.

For each year of full-time service they will receive a $7,500 living allowance and $4,725 for college tuition or student loan repayment - 75 percent of which comes from the federal government, the rest from local fund-raising. Mitchell says he plans to use the money for carpentry and other classes at the local community college.

But this 18-year-old, who was recently paroled, has a bigger dream than college: ``My future is to have a horse-and-cattle ranch someday,'' he says, although, ``it's going to take some time.''

Meanwhile, Mitchell says he has learned a lot about himself. ``Sometimes I would get aggravated out there on the job. But I realized I can control my personality.''

Says Mitchell's boss and the founder of the Austin organization, Richard Morgan, ``Hopefully this program will give Morgan'' - and the 63 other AmeriCorps volunteers who will join him - the confidence to do something with his dream.''

Some criticism of Clinton's program, however, reveals that a federally designed and funded program can be problematic for grass-roots organizations.

Patsy Smith is executive director of CityWorks, a Worcester, Mass. community-service program for at-risk youth. Although she is pleased that AmeriCorps will enable her to increase the number of participants from 20 to 30, she says, ``There sure is a lot of paperwork.''

A greater concern for Ms. Smith is that while CityWorks' primary focus used to be the individual growth of its participants, ``What's driving the AmeriCorps legislation is changing the community, not individuals.''

Specifically, with AmeriCorps' mandate of ``getting things done,'' the general equivalency diploma (GED) classes, which were the centerpiece of the program, will be sidelined or stopped altogether.

Regardless of others' views of AmeriCorps, Clinton hopes it will be one of the defining programs of his presidency.

At a Monitor lunch last December, the president said, ``I think a generation from now people will look at the national-service program as one of the major achievements of our times.''

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