Self-isolation opens a door to national service

Staying home, or venturing out to volunteer, sets a high mark for mass sacrifice. A federal panel suggests new ways to expand such civic engagement.

A volunteer in Chicago with Project C.U.R.E. accepts personal protective equipment (PPE) to be donated to healthcare workers,

Just in time for National Volunteer Month in April, Americans are discovering the meaning of sacrifice in service to others. They are self-isolating during a pandemic, both to protect themselves and their communities. This same awareness of service could be said of paying taxes, joining the military, or doing jury duty. Yet this latest type of mass goodwill, already seared into the collective memory, could have its own impact long after the final defeat of COVID-19.

Staying at home is not the only good turn in a bad time. Some are tapping the internet to tutor low-income students, reduce loneliness in seniors, or ensure people get accurate information. Others who know how to travel safely have responded to calls for volunteers to deliver meals, help hospitals, or just mow a neighbor’s lawn.

The exact measure of volunteering may never be known. But for those who are participating in this unique civic engagement, there is a new blueprint on how to continue the experience.

On March 25, a federal commission set up three years ago to bolster America’s culture of service issued its final report. Its key recommendation: create a national roster of Americans with critical skills ready to serve in a public emergency. The panel set a goal of expanding national service opportunities so that 1 million Americans participate annually by 2031.

Congress established the 11-member National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service mainly over a question on how to improve expand the selective service system. Indeed, the panel recommended that women be required to register for the military draft. But its mandate included all aspects of service that might improve security in any type of emergency. Or as one commissioner, Debra Wada, put it, “Including women in the registration process reaffirms the nation’s fundamental belief in a common defense, and signals that all Americans may be expected to serve.”

Since its founding, the United States has frequently sought to enhance a spirit of service through programs such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. That spirit picks up after a major crisis, such as the 9/11 attacks. Now the coronavirus crisis again puts a spotlight on volunteering for the greater good. When faced with a common threat, more people view service to others as a reflection of a higher good, one able to dispel the threat. When seen in that light, enduring a sacrifice like self-isolation is made easier.

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