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Obama Signs Service Bill That Expands Volunteer Programs

In his inaugural address, Obama started the legislative ball rolling with his stirring call to service, evoking comparisons to President 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 bill 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 a term of service, and the grants would be transferable to children or grandchildren.

The legislation 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.

After the House vote, Tom Nelson, AARP chief operating officer, said, “We congratulate Congress for passing legislation that will offer more opportunities to volunteers of all ages who wish to help tackle America’s most pressing problems by lending a hand in their neighborhoods and communities.”

John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures, a program targeted at retirees, said, “One of the breakthroughs in this legislation is that now national service will be for all people—people of all ages.”

At present, AmeriCorps volunteers can receive up to $4,725 to help pay for college or pay off student loans. the bill would increase that amount to $5,350.

It would also concentrate some efforts in low-income communities, according to House leaders, creating five kinds of service corps: clean energy, education, financial literacy, “healthy futures” (concentrating on preventive medicine) and “veterans service” (concentrating on reengaging returning veterans in their communities).

Elaine S. Povich is a freelance writer who covers politics.

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