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Senate Passes Bill to Expand National Volunteer Service

In a rare display of bipartisanship and with a deep bow to President Barack Obama’s call to service in his inaugural address, the Senate last night approved a bill to broadly expand the AmeriCorps national service program.

The measure, the Serve America Act, brought together the generations rallied by Obama and President John F. Kennedy and included incentives for both older and younger Americans to get involved in volunteer activities—including financial grants and new or expanded programs. The bill would increase AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 positions to 250,000 over the next eight years.

“National service is not a job or a career move for these individuals [who volunteer],” said Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a sponsor of the bill, during a Senate floor debate Thursday. “Indeed, no one is getting rich by participating in these programs. Those who join these programs are motivated to give back to this great country, to engage in their local communities and improve the lives of those in need.”

The Senate measure is similar to one approved overwhelmingly by the House last week. The House bill, called the GIVE Act, would add 175,000 participants to AmeriCorps and other national service programs. The Senate measure is estimated to cost $5.7 billion over five years, while the House version is an estimated $6 billion over five years. Obama’s proposed budget for next year calls for more than $1.1 billion for national service programs, an increase of more than $210 million.

Congress hopes to have a compromise version of the bill on the president’s desk as soon as next week, and Obama has pledged to sign it.

In his inaugural address, Obama started the legislative ball rolling with his stirring call to service, evoking comparisons to Kennedy’s famous inaugural words 48 years earlier: “Ask what you can do for your country.” Obama said that Americans honor members of the military fighting in wars “not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service—a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment—a moment that will define a generation—it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

The Senate bill, which was approved 79-19, would provide some kind of volunteer program for virtually all ages. Middle- and high-school students could enroll in a “Summer of Service” volunteer program and earn $500 toward college costs.

At colleges, the government would award 25 grants to schools for programs that help students perform national service while they take classes. Ten percent of AmeriCorps funds would be reserved for organizations that engage those over age 55.

Older Americans would be eligible for several specific programs under the bill. The ServeAmerica fellowships would allow those over 55 to develop individual plans for community service. Silver Scholarships and Encore Fellowships would give older Americans a hand in breaking into new careers in public service. The awards would give grants of up to $1,000 for 500 hours of service, and the grants would be transferable to children or grandchildren.

The bill has broad support in the volunteer community and across the spectrum of interest groups. “It is truly a national movement that has gotten behind this bipartisan measure here,” Hatch said.

Tom Nelson, AARP chief operating officer, said his 40 million-member organization ”applauds the Senate for passing legislation that speaks to what is best about America: the opportunity to serve others in neighborhoods and communities across the country. Our members stand ready to give, and offer a lifetime of acquired skills that can meet a range of local needs. The Serve America Act helps activate this cadre of potential volunteers and offers the sort of opportunities that people aged 50+ are looking for.”

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