July 5, 2002 - Omaha World-Herald : Midlanders heed call for volunteer service

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Midlanders heed call for volunteer service

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Midlanders heed call for volunteer service

Jul 5, 2002 - Omaha World-Herald Author(s): Deborah Alexander

When David Lindgren of Omaha leaves for the Dominican Republic in September, he will join thousands of other recent college graduates for volunteer service assignments here in the U.S. and abroad.

Such volunteerism received an initial boost early this year from President Bush in his State of the Union address, although several local agencies said that interest hasn't translated into a significant increase in volunteers.

After Bush called on Americans to commit to two years of national service, organizations such as Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps reported that application requests were up dramatically.

Thomas Gouttierre, director of UNO's Afghanistan studies and dean of international studies, a 1960s Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, commended Bush for his comments.

"Bush's instincts are in the right direction," Gouttierre said. "When the population hears a leader extol the virtues of volunteer service, it's the best advertising. You can't buy advertising like that."

He noted the impact that President John F. Kennedy made in the early 1960s when he challenged Americans to consider national service such as the Peace Corps.

"His presentation motivated a lot of people," Gouttierre said of Kennedy.

In the 48 hours after Bush's speech, Peace Corps requests rose more than 300 percent over 2001.

Teach for America received 14,000 applications for its 2002 corps, the most ever in the organization's 12-year history and almost tripling last year's applications.

AmeriCorps saw a 50 percent increase in online applications one month after Bush's remarks. The organization received more than 10,000 phone calls and e-mails seeking information.

In the Omaha metro area, service agencies such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and the United Way of the Midlands reported more hits on their Web sites and more phone calls seeking information, but no significant increase in the number of volunteers.

Many people, for example, want to volunteer only during a disaster and not on a continuing basis, said Raeanna Kuzma, divisional director of volunteers for the Salvation Army in Nebraska, South Dakota and part of Iowa.

"That's where their hearts are geared toward," Kuzma said.

The tough economy also means many people are working more just to make ends meet, leaving them less time to volunteer, she said.

Ruth Rudzinski, Peace Corps regional representative for Nebraska, said some Peace Corps applicants have mentioned the president's comments. However, Rudzinski noted that people who applied after the Bush's speech wouldn't depart for assignments until late fall or early next year.

Lindgren, 22, and other recent college graduates say Bush's comments had little to do with a decision they had made long before Sept. 11. These graduates have been active volunteers throughout high school and college and have as role models relatives who participated in national service.

"I've worked at this forever," said Lindgren, who holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from Creighton University. "I'm ready for this."

Lindgren will work as a community economic adviser in the Dominican Republic handling small business development and micro loans.

Mike Wehenkel of Omaha will help build low-income housing in Baltimore for AmeriCorps/Habitat for Humanity. Wehenkel, 21, graduated from Creighton University with bachelor's degrees in biology and Spanish.

He said he wanted to take a couple of years off before going to medical school.

"Being a surgeon is so far away," Wehenkel said. "Once I become a doctor, I won't be able to do this."

Wehenkel said Americans don't have to donate money to support each other.

"They can do this on a daily basis by reaching out and helping others," he said. "The patriotism from Sept. 11 has helped put this into perspective."

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