LIKE House Speaker Newt Gingrich and fellow Republicans, I once bashed the AmeriCorps program shamelessly. I saw it as a jobs program and chastised the young people involved as money grubbers who dared to call themselves ''volunteers.''
But I have been transformed from cynic to convert. After months of talking with people in the program and watching them plant trees in empty lots, settle disputes in rundown urban schools, immunize children, combat water pollution, and clean graffiti-plagued streets, I am enlightened. These young people, who are labeled ''slackers'' and ''MTV-addicted couch potatoes,'' are diligent, enthusiastic, hard working, and maintain a balance of idealism and realism.
On a chilly, bright November morning I followed a group of college-aged AmeriCorps workers into New York's Lower East Side where they were transforming a parking lot into a bright and cheerful place. I fired hardball questions at people who were coating parking meters with paint and scouring away at graffiti. ''So why did you really want to join this program?'' I asked each person, one eyebrow lifted in suspicion.
I wanted to believe that they joined because they didn't know what else to do, that they needed the money, that this was an easy alternative to taking out a loan, that it would be a highlight on their resumes, that they would admit with frankness that the dollars were a lure, that they cared more about changing their lives than other peoples'.
I did receive frank answers, but there was a freshness to them. One young woman said she was tired of having her generation labeled so negatively and wanted to show the world the other side of the story.
''I don't sit around and whine all day,'' she said angrily. ''I keep busy. I like helping people. Is there something weird about that?''
In an age when high-profile politicians, high-powered executives, and even religious leaders perform ''random acts of kindness'' for money, book advances, and appearances on talk shows, there is something rare about people doing something just because they want to help, to make a difference, to give something back for all they have been given.
A few of them grew up in upper-middle-class suburbia, went to Ivy League schools, and now want to give back to society. Others grew up in poor neighborhoods, battled the hardships of the streets, triumphed, and want to help and inspire those still living in the war zone.
And the money? If you take the grants given to the students and divide by the hours, they are making minimum wage or less. One young man laughed at the notion that he was in it for the money. ''If I wanted to make real money, I'd go find me a part-time job,'' he said. As for recognition? There's hardly any. ''The media love to write about those slackers, hackers, and young people that just goof off,'' he said. ''I guess that stuff sells.''
After weeks of talking with these young people, watching them toil in the dangerous neighborhoods, rundown schools, and understaffed medical clinics, it was obvious that the communities were benefiting. AmeriCorps has made a difference.
AmeriCorps shouldn't be abolished. It should be endorsed, encouraged, and expanded. Thousands of young people were turned away last year because the 20,000 slots were filled. Many are waiting for more slots to open. AmeriCorps isn't a political issue like abortion, but, tragically, it is treated as one. Republicans believe it's a waste of money. Mr. Gingrich believes it's coercive and forced volunteerism. In truth, the fact that AmeriCorps was President Clinton's idea is the real reason Republicans want to kill it.
If AmeriCorps is axed, it won't be because it didn't work, but because of Washington politics.