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Obama Signs Bill Expanding National Civilian Service Corps

April 21, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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President Obama signed a $5.7 billion national service bill that will triple the size of the AmeriCorps program and renew the call for community involvement. Analysts mull the new measure.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, a major expansion of national service programs. Gwen Ifill has that story.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: We need your service right now at this moment in history. I’m not going to tell you what your role should be; that’s for you to discover. But I’m asking you to stand up and play your part.

GWEN IFILL: Responding to a surge of interest in hands-on volunteering around the country, President Obama today signed legislation that could triple the size of the AmeriCorps national service program.

BARACK OBAMA: I’ve seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers. They’re a generation that came of age amidst the horrors of 9/11 and Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economic crisis without precedent. And yet despite all this, or more likely because of it, they’ve become a generation of activists, possessed with that most American of ideas: that people who love their country can change it.

GWEN IFILL: Since AmeriCorps was created in 1993, 75,000 volunteers each year have pitched in to educate children and the disadvantaged, clean parks and streams, build affordable housing, and feed the hungry.

The president spoke today at a Washington, D.C., boarding school that focuses on learning through service.

BARACK OBAMA: Programs like these are a force multiplier. They leverage small numbers of members into thousands of volunteers. And we will focus their service toward solving today’s most pressing challenges.

GWEN IFILL: The $5.7 billion bipartisan measure was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, received an extended ovation today.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: This is a wonderful day…for all of our country and all Americans who will now have a chance and the opportunity to give back to their communities and the nation, the nation that we love so much.

VOLUNTEER: What would we have to use to get 625?

GWEN IFILL: AmeriCorps rewards its volunteers with education assistance, $1.6 billion during the last 16 years. Online applications are up 234 percent this year.

Renewed interest in service

Alan Solomont
Corp. for National and Community Service
A lot of it has to do with the Obama effect, the president's call to Americans to serve. And I think it's also driven in part by this emerging millennial generation who want to be part of something greater than themselves.

GWEN IFILL: So what difference will this new law make nationally and at the grassroots? Alan Solomont is chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent federal agency in charge of AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps, and other domestic programs.

And Lise Day runs the Lorain County, Ohio, chapter of Big Brothers and Big Sisters. She joins us from Cleveland.

Alan Solomont, why such a surge in interest in national service now?

ALAN SOLOMONT, Corporation for National and Community Service: Well, I think part of it is the economic crisis. People want to help their neighbors out and I think feel their neighbors' pain.

A lot of it has to do with the Obama effect, the president's call to Americans to serve. And I think it's also driven in part by this emerging millennial generation who want to be part of something greater than themselves.

And this is -- this, which resulting in this legislation, is going to allow the Corporation for National and Community Service to provide opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans to serve, to tutor young people, to build affordable housing, to clean up the environment, and those people in turn will mobilize millions of volunteers to tackle those community issues.

GWEN IFILL: Here's what I don't get about the economic crisis as the driving factor. Why aren't people just trying to find paying jobs at a time like this, instead of trying to volunteer?

ALAN SOLOMONT: Some of the service programs that the corporation administers provides paying positions. Members in AmeriCorps receives a living allowance that helps them -- a modest one, but helps them survive and allows them to devote themselves full time to intensive service in their communities.

It also provides an educational award for young people that will help them further their education.

And, frankly, what we're seeing is millions of Americans who want to help out, who are not unemployed, but who want to volunteer to tackle problems in the community that have been created by this economic crisis. We call it a compassion surge, but there's something going on out there where Americans are really wanting to help one another.

GWEN IFILL: There is an argument to be made that perhaps it's not government's role to do this, that this sort of compassion surge would go along just fine on its own without government money involved, especially at a time where everything is so tight.

ALAN SOLOMONT: Well, that may be an argument of some, but I think there's a deep national consensus that this is very much an appropriate use of public funds.

This legislation received more bipartisan support than probably any legislation that we will see in this Congress. And every sector of our society -- from business, nonprofit organizations to the government -- are all supportive of increasing the opportunities for Americans to serve and of using public money as seed money to launch those efforts.

Funds to strengthen programs

Lise Day
Big Brothers, Big Sisters
We have to bridge that [funding] gap and make sure that the background checks are accomplished, that the volunteer is interviewed, and screened, and supported, and trained. And all of those things require just a little bit of money.

GWEN IFILL: Lise Day, tell us about your experience in Loraine County, Ohio. Is what Alan Solomont is saying here on the national level what you're seeing on the local level?

LISE DAY, Big Brothers, Big Sisters: Most certainly. We've had a tremendous surge in volunteerism, which is wonderful. We have so many children who need and want that caring adult in their life, to be a friend and role model through Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

But we can't charge the volunteers to volunteer. We wouldn't dream of it. And we certainly wouldn't charge the children. And so somehow we have to bridge that gap and make sure that the background checks are accomplished, that the volunteer is interviewed, and screened, and supported, and trained. And all of those things require just a little bit of money to leverage that tremendous goodwill.

GWEN IFILL: So when I ask you, where is the -- if the federal money is, indeed, trickling down and what you use it for, you're using it for, what, kind of infrastructure of the volunteer movement?

LISE DAY: Yes. Mentoring is one of those things that would happen pretty naturally on its own if we weren't so afraid of each other. And there are very good reasons today to be cautious in engaging with a child or for a child to engage with an adult.

And, basically, what Big Brothers, Big Sisters does is makes that safe for people to build that friendship through one another, because the organization has that structure.

Mentoring relationships that do not have structure do not last. And research has told us that, if the relationship lasts less than six months, you've done more harm than good to that child, because it's just another adult who has walked out on them, didn't care, turned their back.

And we don't want anybody with great intentions to find themselves ill-equipped and feel as if they couldn't continue. So we have professional staff, social workers, who help. And they take care of anything that -- where the child needs a referral or anything where there's something that's a little bit more than the volunteer wants to take on.

And that's one of the hallmarks of Big Brothers, Big Sisters services, that long match longevity. We make friends for life.

Washington responds to interest

Alan Solomont
Corp. for National and Community Service
There is something going on across this country that we're seeing in the rise of volunteers, the increase in the number of applications to AmeriCorps. What's happening is Washington is responding to that.

GWEN IFILL: Who do you see volunteering? Do you see -- is it young people? Is it older people? Who are the people who are knocking on your door?

LISE DAY: All kinds of people. We've traditionally had a harder time bringing men on than women. We're seeing men coming through.

Folks are working. It's not that they're unemployed. But I think that all the news over the last six months has really made us aware of what's going on in the community.

And I find when I'm talking to people, I don't have to tell them as much as I did before to convince them that there's a need out there and to convince them that it's possible for it to be addressed by them.

That one person, that Joe everyday person, nothing special, not trained as a social worker or a psychologist, and I think that that change in our society is very beneficial, because we talk a lot about this economic crisis. And we don't often think about how it's affecting the children who are hearing about the economic crisis or seeing their mother or their uncle or somebody out of work and the concerns that are going through their minds. And our families were already frail.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

LISE DAY: So the children especially need support today. And if just a little bit of recruitment support or a little bit of money to run some backgrounds checks and support the volunteer as they're doing -- the real important thing is the relationship. And that's all done by volunteers.

GWEN IFILL: Alan Solomont -- I'm sorry, pardon me, Lise, I just want to come back to Alan Solomont for a question, because I'm curious about how much of what we're seeing here is percolating up from folks like Lise and how much of it is just -- is the kind of agenda that the president has set for his administration and has talked about? I mean, where does it come from first?

ALAN SOLOMONT: That's a great question, because this is not something that Washington is imposing on the rest of the country. There is something going on across this country that we're seeing in the rise of volunteers, the increase in the number of applications to AmeriCorps. What's happening is Washington is responding to that.

We do have a president who is challenging Americans to serve and who himself comes out of a service experience, as a community organizer. But he's just giving voice to something that's happening, as was said, among people of all ages.

GWEN IFILL: But at the same time, nonprofits have to be suffering the same economic downturns as all the other industries that we cover every night on this program. How are they equipped to deal with this on-rush of goodwill or even handle the influx of money from the federal government?

ALAN SOLOMONT: Another very good question, because the nonprofit sector is definitely feeling the double effects of the economic crisis. Support is down, and the demands on their services is increasing.

One of the things this legislation tries to do is to respond to the needs of not-for-profit organizations so that the Corporation for National and Community Service will be able to send more AmeriCorps members out to nonprofit organizations to help them manage their volunteers.

Part of what we're trying to do is build the capacity of the not-for-profit sector to be able to respond to the needs of communities across the country.

GWEN IFILL: How do you know this isn't just a temporary flash in the pan?

ALAN SOLOMONT: You know, we've seen presidents before call Americans to serve.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

ALANSOLOMONT: Franklin Roosevelt called the greatest generation to serve inthe military; that was certainly not a flash in the pan. John Kennedycalled Americans to public service in 1960; that has had long-lastingeffects.

And I believe we're seeing something every bit aspowerful, that this president is calling Americans to communityservice, to serve in their communities, solve community problems.

Nosector of society can solve the problems that we're facing bythemselves. And I think that we're all recognizing the value ofcitizens becoming engaged in dealing with the problems of theircommunities.

GWEN IFILL: Alan Solomont, Corporation for NationalService, and Lise Day from Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Loraine County,Ohio, thank you both for joining us.

ALAN SOLOMONT: My pleasure.