April 22, 2002 - Hartford Courant: National Service would enrich, help country

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National Service would enrich, help country

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Apr 22, 2002 - Hartford Courant Author(s): Susan Plese

President Bush is pushing volunteerism. He wants Americans to serve their country not just through the military, but by working in national service for a year or so. In return, the volunteers would receive living stipends and help with college grants or loans.

Of course the idea is controversial. Where is the money going to come from? Will a new service interfere with recruitment to Clinton's AmeriCorps, the Senior Corps, Kennedy's Peace Corps? Would the proposed Citizen Corps take on military functions?

Now it's not often I agree with Mr. Bush. But as I read his speeches last week while he was stumping in Connecticut, I had a knee-jerk reaction. Bush has approached an issue that I have long supported. I do not need to be convinced.

We clearly need more opportunities for national service. All men must still register for the draft when they turn 18, even though we haven't had a call-up in years. Why can't we harness this young talent and make service mandatory, or at least terribly attractive, if not with the military, then with social services?

Yes, I realize that we can't force people to volunteer, but if that notion became institutionalized as part of America's culture and responsibility, we wouldn't be debating the merits of it. The merits are abundantly clear.

We are privileged to live in America. We are obligated to share our time and wealth with those who are less fortunate, whether in this country or abroad. Obligated. That's not a suggestion.

Back in the late `70s, I was the coordinator for volunteer services with the Manchester public schools. More than 500 adults worked on a regular basis in the elementary schools; another 80 people, most skilled professionals, artists, business people, stood on call for occasional classroom presentations. I really felt that townspeople were in partnership with the schools, all of us engaged in raising our children. "It takes a village," remember?

In the late 1980s, when Tom Gerety was hired as the president of Trinity College, he told me in an interview that he hoped to make community service a requirement for graduation.

When he was an undergraduate at Yale, he worked in New Haven's poorest neighborhoods. He wanted the privileged students at Trinity to share their gifts as he had with those on the crumbling streets that surrounded their island college.

To this day, volunteerism is alive and well at Trinity. Though service is not a requisite for graduation, opportunities are abundant and the notion has become institutionalized. Students from all over the world earn degrees while helping Hartford's disadvantaged.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., says he is concerned that expanded opportunities in this country could detract from the Peace Corps, where he served. I don't think they would; more young people would be attracted to service if the venues were as diverse as their interests.

Not everyone is willing or able to serve in the Peace Corps. The volunteers commit to 27 months in a Third World country or region. They live as their sponsors do, often forgoing comforts such as basic sanitation, plumbing, heat, hot water, telephones and reliable transportation.

They must become fluent in another language while working and learning the culture in which they are immersed. They often don't come back to America until the 27 months are up, unless a serious family emergency intervenes.

My son joined the Peace Corps about two years ago. Some people asked why he didn't volunteer to work here, in Appalachia, or in a poverty-stricken city school. Charity, as they say, begins at home.

Eben could have served this country well in a national corps, but he had wanderlust. He would have wandered through Europe on his own anyway, but the Peace Corps gave him a structured mission in a struggling Eastern European country.

National volunteer service, with the possible exception of the military, would not have permitted him such immersion in another culture.

Many others, like my son, are interested in volunteerism, but don't want to delay their life plans for such a long period. They don't want to leave the country. They have family ties or health concerns. A spectrum of opportunity in national service could be vastly appealing for these folks.

Add stipends and money toward higher education to the package. Or help pay off student loans. Who could resist? I know more than a few students who have joined the National Guard just so they could go to college.

The Peace Corps, while compelling for so many reasons, does have its drawbacks that national service would address.

My son will come home in December, after 27 months in Ukraine, with no job, no flat, no car (sold), no driver's license (expired) and no credit (cards also expired). He has a $30,000 loan for graduate school on hold. He was excused from payments while in the corps, but interest accrued. Nothing was forgiven. He knew all this when he enlisted.

The Peace Corps will remain strong regardless of expanded opportunities in national service. It will continue to attract idealistic men and women who choose to serve the larger world, those who have no "strings," those who can afford to halt careers before they have begun, or those who are healthy enough to join after retirement.

But a national corps could be infinitely more inviting to the rest of us. I've found that most people want to help others, but sometimes they don't know what to do or where to start.

Give them choices. Let them commit to short-term enlistments. Allow part-time service. Add incentives.

Ask them, and they will come.

Susan Plese is a Manchester resident and professor of communications at Manchester Community College. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached C/O The Hartford Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.

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