Using as a background a public boarding school in Washington that requires students to volunteer, President Obama today signed a landmark bill creating the largest expansion of national volunteer service since the inception of AmeriCorps in 1993.
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act is named for the ailing senator who was instrumental in its passage. Obama gave the first pen that he used to sign the bill to Kennedy, who beamed throughout the ceremony. The second pen went to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Kennedy’s close friend and partner in the legislation. It was Hatch who asked that the bill be named for Kennedy, Obama said.
Also in attendance was former President Bill Clinton, who began AmeriCorps during his administration. The new law will increase the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from the current 75,000 to 250,000 over the next eight years.
Obama noted that service to others—he was a community organizer in Chicago before entering politics—was instrumental in launching his career. “I would not be standing here today were it not for the service to others and for the purpose that service gave my own life,” Obama said.
He then issued his own call to service for Americans, echoing the call first issued by Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1961. “We need your service, right now, in this moment in history,” Obama said. “I’m asking you to help change history’s course. Put your shoulder up against the wheel. And if you do, I promise you—your life will be richer, our country will be stronger, and someday, years from now, you may remember it as the moment when your own story and the American story converged, when they came together, and we met the challenges of our new century.”
Afterward, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined Clinton to plant trees at a national park site along the Anacostia River in Northeast Washington. Earlier in the day, Obama nominated Nike Inc. Vice President Maria Eitel to lead the Corporation for National and Community Service, the public-private agency that oversees service programs. The Senate must confirm her nomination.
Praise for the Serve America Act has come from all quarters. Typical was AARP’s reaction.
“At a time when many communities are in great need, AARP applauds President Obama for signing the bipartisan Serve America Act into law,” said AARP CEO Barry Rand, who was present for the ceremony. “This is important legislation that will strengthen and expand civic engagement and volunteer opportunities for people of all ages.”
Congress cleared the bill last month with bipartisan support. Leading the floor debate on the bill, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said that volunteering is “not a black or white or gray or blue or red issue. It’s an American issue.” He said the bill would provide volunteer opportunities for Americans “from middle school to retirement and beyond retirement.”
The House voted 275-149 to approve the Senate-passed version of the bill, in the process scrapping its own version rather than go to conference and work out differences between the two. The measure includes incentives for both older and younger Americans to get involved in volunteer activities—including financial grants and new or expanded programs.
The bill, which would increase AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 positions, is estimated to cost $5.7 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.
“National service is not a job or a career move for these individuals [who volunteer],” said Hatch during Senate floor debate. “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.”
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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