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 dream of national service will require a far more difficult change in behavior, say experts on community and volunteerism.

In his State of the Union address, Bush challenged every American to give two years or 4,000 hours of volunteer work during the rest of their lifetimes 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 for your country." But now comes the hard work of turning rhetoric into action.

"The challenge is to harness this increased desire to serve," said Sandy Scott, a spokesman for AmeriCorps, one of the government public service programs Bush wants to boost. "We have to make it real. We have to connect people with volunteer opportunities. We have to encourage them.

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

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

Specifics of Bush's plans include:

  • Forming a new "Citizen Corps" coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Among other things, it would encourage citizens to spot threatening activities in their communities and to do volunteer 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 Senior Corps volunteers would increase to 600,000 from 500,000.
  • Boosting international aid through the Peace Corps, by restoring the number of volunteers to 15,000, matching the program's all-time high in 1966.
  • With some exceptions, volunteer organizations are applauding the proposals.

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

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

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

    The proportion of Americans responding in nationwide surveys that they "trust the government in Washington" only some of the time or never rose from 30 percent in 1996 to 75 percent in 1992. Service organizations such as the Lions, Elks and Shriners had experienced double-digit drops in the number of volunteers. And while more Americans were bowling than ever before, bowling in organized leagues had plummeted.

    Putnam wrote that only a "national crisis" could change this bleak outlook. 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 trust in the national government skyrocketing 44 percentage points, trust in local police up 14 percentage points and volunteering up 6 percentage points. On a less promising note, "regular volunteering"--defined as serving at least twice a month--was unchanged at one in seven Americans.

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

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

    For at least three hours a week, Cobb spends time with Racquel Hughes, 10, who has a severe developmental disorder that prevents her from speaking.

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

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

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

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

    "It sounds like I'm making a pitch, and I am," Bush said after reading out the initiative's Internet address, usafreedomcorps.gov. "This is the right thing to do for America. 1-877-USA-CORPS. If somebody out there is interested in figuring out how to serve, it's 1-877-USA-CORPS."

    Not everyone, however, is receptive.

    Gabrielle Kurlander, president of The All Stars Project, a nonprofit serving poor children in New York City, resents it.

    "Frankly, I find it quite strange to call for greater government control of volunteerism," said Kurlander, whose volunteer organization has been honored as one of the national "Points of Light," an effort begun when Bush's father was president. "I'm not sure that's the way to do it. Look at history. Programs run by government have not been the most effective."

    But count Bradley Googins, director of Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship, among the hopeful. To him, Bush is using the momentum of the anti-terrorism campaign and his own popularity with the American public to institutionalize the ideal of public service.

    "The proof will be in the pudding, for sure," Googins said. "Will we retreat to the narrow self-interest we sometimes see in politics and the worst of corporations, or will we really see a different world emerge?

    "I will say that there seems to be something in the air right now, a spirit that has the potential of carrying over into the future."

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