Beliefnet

c. 2002 Religion News Service

Americans have made an attitudinal shift from "me" toward"we" since Sept. 11, surveys show. But realizing President Bush's dreamof national service will require a far more difficult change inbehavior, say experts on community and volunteerism.

In his State of the Union address, Bush challenged every American togive two years or 4,000 hours of volunteer work during the rest of theirlifetimes to "overcome evil with greater good."

It was a rallying cry with echoes of John Kennedy's 1961 call to"ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do foryour country." But now comes the hard work of turning rhetoric intoaction.

"The challenge is to harness this increased desire to serve," saidSandy Scott, a spokesman for AmeriCorps, one of the government publicservice programs Bush wants to boost. "We have to make it real. We haveto connect people with volunteer opportunities. We have to encouragethem.

"The bully pulpit of the White House is a great place to start. InKennedy's day that might have been enough."

Today, Scott said, it will take a massive national effort -- bynonprofits, corporations and individuals, all encouraged by government.

Specifics of Bush's plans include:

  • Forming a new "Citizen Corps" coordinated by the FederalEmergency Management Agency. Among other things, it would encouragecitizens to spot threatening activities in their communities and to dovolunteer administrative duties for police departments.
  • Expanding the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps volunteer programs.AmeriCorps would add 25,000 slots to its current 50,000 while SeniorCorps volunteers would increase to 600,000 from 500,000.
  • Boosting international aid through the Peace Corps, by restoringthe number of volunteers to 15,000, matching the program's all-time highin 1966.
  • With some exceptions, volunteer organizations are applauding theproposals.

    "People are hungrier to serve now," said Kathy Kessnich, aspokesperson for Rotary International, a 97-year-old serviceorganization based in Evanston, Ill. "They're actually looking forvolunteer opportunities, particularly young people. It's a response toSept. 11."

    Before the terrorist attacks, many had lamented the lack ofcommunity-mindedness.

    In "Bowling Alone," an influential book published two years ago,Harvard professor Robert Putnam concluded that volunteering and trust incommunity institutions were declining.

    The proportion of Americans responding in nationwide surveys thatthey "trust the government in Washington" only some of the time or neverrose from 30 percent in 1996 to 75 percent in 1992. Serviceorganizations such as the Lions, Elks and Shriners had experienceddouble-digit drops in the number of volunteers. And while more Americanswere bowling than ever before, bowling in organized leagues hadplummeted.

    Putnam wrote that only a "national crisis" could change this bleakoutlook. Then came Sept. 11.

    Now, in the Feb. 11 edition of The American Prospect, Putnam writes of a new window of opportunity for societal change.

    In a survey conducted after Sept. 11, he and colleagues found trustin the national government skyrocketing 44 percentage points, trust inlocal police up 14 percentage points and volunteering up 6 percentagepoints. On a less promising note, "regular volunteering"--defined asserving at least twice a month--was unchanged at one in sevenAmericans.

    "Will behavior follow attitudes?" Putnam asks in the article. "It'san important question. And if the answer is no, then the blossom ofcivic-mindedness after Sept. 11 may be short-lived."

    Edith Cobb, 78, watched the State of the Union speech in herPhiladelphia apartment. She liked what she heard, in part because she'sa longtime volunteer herself.

    For at least three hours a week, Cobb spends time with RacquelHughes, 10, who has a severe developmental disorder that prevents herfrom speaking.

    "Volunteerism is a good thing," Cobb said. "There are lots of peoplewho are sitting around not doing anything. You're not helping yourselfwhen you do that.

    "Well, maybe you could help somebody else. That's when you get yourblessing."

    Cobb and Racquel were linked by Family Friends, a program thatmatches volunteers 55 or older with the parents of children with specialneeds. The group received start-up funding from Faith in Action, aprogram funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

    Bush has established a volunteer umbrella agency, Freedom Corps, tomake the connections at a federal level. On Wednesday, in Winston-Salem,N.C., the president promoted volunteerism with the enthusiasm of acheerleader.

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