It's bipartisan: Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush agree on community service

The two presidents celebrate a surge in volunteerism. The challenge is how to target and keep the free talent of millions of Americans.

Helping others through volunteer service has hit a critical mass in the United States. While that's all to the good, can such private efforts also solve big social problems, such as the high rate of high school dropouts?

That was President George H.W. Bush's hope 20 years ago, when his "thousand points of light" initiative called Americans to greater community service. Mr. Bush's successors all have echoed the call, including Barack Obama, the community organizer-turned-commander in chief. The two presidents met Friday at Texas A&M University to celebrate Bush's volunteerism initiative.

Service is a continuous thread in the fabric of American society. It stretches back to Benjamin Franklin's first volunteer fire department and weaves through time to today's,, and – examples of Internet sites that allow people to search for opportunities by subject and location.

Volunteerism has surged in the last two decades, increasing by more than 60 percent to nearly 62 million volunteers last year. In that time, high schools have embraced community service as a necessary part of student life, and so have many colleges. Corporations routinely donate employees' skills and time. Two groups that serve much more than in 1989: youths and older Americans.

This month, TV is getting in on the act by writing volunteerism into program scripts and public-service announcements. More than 90 shows on network and cable TV are joining the "I Participate" campaign to inspire viewers to repeat the good works they see on their flat-screen TVs.

President Obama hopes to make community service a cornerstone of his presidency. His "United We Serve" call in June encouraged Americans to engage in their communities in a sustained, meaningful way. Under the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, Obama seeks to triple the size of AmeriCorps, whose members receive a small stipend for activities such as mentoring, cleaning up parks, and responding to emergencies. But Congress, which authorized the act, is balking at fully funding it.

The greater challenge, however, is figuring out how to gather millions of "light points" into a few powerful beams that can illuminate and then alleviate some of America's most pressing problems.

Who decides what the high-priority needs are? Will steering volunteers toward a few key needs leave other important ones unmet? Will volunteers accept being steered at all?

People serve according to their passions and higher callings. They make their own decisions about how and when to donate time. That's a grass-roots, organic process that, if run over by government or well-meaning private organizations, could flatten the desire of individuals to serve.

Some core needs are obvious. For instance, the Points of Light Institute, the nation's largest volunteer and civic engagement organization, is focusing on education, the environment, and the economy. Millions of people have been displaced by the recession and need material support – and also help in learning new job skills.

One successful example is using volunteerism to combat the nation's 9 percent dropout rate (youths ages 16 to 24 not in school and with no high school degree). This means not merely tutoring or otherwise supporting at-risk young people, but turning them into volunteers so that they build self-esteem and discover firsthand the value of education.

Yet retaining volunteers is also a challenge. Last year, about a third of them dropped out. Service groups need to figure out how to turn the one-time stint at the holiday soup-kitchen into a lifetime of giving – and how to organize a volunteer experience so that first-timers don't sour on it. Internet training of service leaders could help.

The surge in volunteering comes at the right time for America, and it's encouraging that Obama sees community service as a national priority. The challenge for today is focusing and keeping this free talent without squelching it.

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