Saturday, July 27, 2002

Volunteers harder to find as spirit of Sept. 11 fades

Indian Hill native heads Bush effort

By Derrick DePledge,
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Colleen Newman was cleaning offices at a nonprofit agency when she came across an opportunity.

[photo] AmeriCorps volunteer Corinne Robinson, 22, reads Five Little Monkeys as Nina Foster, 4, and Robert Champion, 3, participate. Ms. Robinson visits day care providers to promote literacy for children.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        The single mother of two from Price Hill, who left high school a few credits shy of a diploma, didn't really see herself as a tutor or a role model. But the federal government was offering a living allowance and an education reward for people willing to spend about a year of their life helping others.

        She took a chance.

        Ms. Newman, 32, who passed a high school equivalency exam four years after she left school, now helps others prepare for the exams through the East Price Hill Urban Appalachian Council. She said she recognizes the anxiety in some of her students, whether they are about to leave welfare, are searching for a better job, or simply want the accomplishment.

        “I just want to let them know that if I can do it, they can do it,” she said.

        In his State of the Union address, President Bush asked Americans to devote 4,000 hours of their lifetimes, about two years equivalent work time, to community service. He urged people to turn the spirit and energy that had swept the country after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks into volunteer action.

        Six months later, the challenge is how to convince people who never have volunteered to get involved.

        “We have to make sure there are opportunities for people to answer the call,” said John Bridgeland, who grew up in Indian Hill and was chosen by Mr. Bush to direct USA Freedom Corps.

John Bridgeland, USA Freedom Corps
John Bridgeland, USA Freedom Corps
        “It's a duty associated with living in freedom,” he said.

        USA Freedom Corps is the umbrella for the government's volunteer and community service programs. The agency has created a Web site where people can enter their ZIP code and find volunteer opportunities near where they live or apply for one of several national community service initiatives.

        According to Independent Sector, a nonprofit group that researches philanthropy, 44 percent of adults are formal volunteers and 89 percent of households give to charity.

Start 'em young

        Most people who volunteer start when they are young and are influenced by their parents, church or community. People who volunteer later in life usually do so after a friend or someone they trust asks. Natural disasters and cataclysmic events also can be a spark.

        Jeffrey L. Brudney, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., said the spike in participation after traumatic events usually wears off.

        An Independent Sector survey found that 70 percent of 1,009 people interviewed reported some charitable contribution after the Sept. 11 attacks, with 58 percent making financial donations.

        “We don't know how long it will last or whether it will last,” said Mr. Brudney, who researches volunteerism.

        Mr. Bridgeland, a former chief of staff to Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the number of people who have responded to the president's call has gratified him.

        USA Freedom Corps is expanding existing programs, such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and the Peace Corps, and adding new initiatives, such as Citizen Corps, where community leaders form local councils to prepare for or prevent terrorist attacks. More than 100 cities have begun to build Citizen Corps councils, including Cincinnati and Hamilton.

        Interest in AmeriCorps, where people are paid a $9,300 stipend and receive a $4,725 education reward, is up 89 percent since the State of the Union address, according to the government. Telephone calls to the toll-free hot line for Senior Corps, a service program for senior citizens, are up more than 40 percent.

        Applications for the Peace Corps are up 39 percent from the same period last year. The corps already has sent assessment teams into 13 developing countries, including Afghanistan and East Timor.

        Mr. Bridgeland, who for inspiration draws on his experiences teaching Sunday school at church and the examples of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, said Mr. Bush advised him to make an “appeal to conscience.”

        “Service is about duty,” he said. “We want to be a reminder to people.”

        Some conservatives have questioned the $560 million in new spending the president has requested for Freedom Corps, particularly the decision to expand AmeriCorps, one of President Clinton's signature ideas.

        “I think they mean well. I just think they're misguided,” said Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The whole concept of paid volunteers is against a couple of hundred years of tradition in this country.

        “It tells young people that the way you give to your government or your neighbor is through a paid government program,” she said. “You could probably motivate people to do anything if you pay them enough.”

Shaping the future

        James Wolf, 23, who through AmeriCorps is a teacher's assistant and runs the summer school program at Corryville Catholic Elementary School, said he moved back in with his parents in Mount Healthy to save money. Others share apartments or live in church-sponsored housing.

        “All of us are making sacrifices to do this,” he said.

        Mr. Wolf majored in political science at the University of Cincinnati but is looking into a career in education. He plans to use his reward money to help pay for graduate school.

        “The day-to-day interaction working with the students convinced me,” he said.

        Corrine Robinson, 22, also moved back with her parents in Lebanon while working with children and day-care providers on literacy and language development.

        “I couldn't really afford to do it otherwise,” the Ohio State University graduate said. “You have to want to do it.

        “It's hard sometimes to give up your time,” she said. “I'm not sure what I want to do in the future, but I know I have had a good experience.”

        Melissa Turner, 30, who lives in Mount Airy, studied graphic design at Northern Kentucky University but turned to AmeriCorps when she couldn't find a job in her field after graduation. A single mother of two, she removes lead-based paint that could poison children in low-income housing.

        “I never volunteered before, but I ended up loving it,” she said. “You realize a lot of things that you didn't realize before. If you led a sheltered life before, you get a glimpse of the real world.”

        Ms. Newman, now expecting her third child, said she wants to set an example. She was going to use her reward money to study nursing but now is thinking about becoming a substitute teacher or instructional assistant.

        “I guess people have to see that they can make their communities better,” she said.

        To learn more about participating in Freedom Corps, check the website at, or call toll-free (877) USA-CORPS.

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