Building a culture of service

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In the aftermath of September 11, President Bush sought to foster a culture of service, citizenship and responsibility. In his 2002 State of the Union, he asked every American to give at least two years of their lives in service to others. He created the USA Freedom Corps, an ambitious service effort that coordinates more than $1 billion in new and existing domestic and international service initiatives and connects millions of Americans to service opportunities in communities, schools and workplaces. No one knew how Americans would respond.

The existing landscape looked bleak. In “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam catalogued a 30-year decline in volunteer service and civic participation, showing major reductions in volunteers for organizations, such as the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts. Experts agreed that rapid progress in volunteer mobilization was rare. Would September 11 be the unique moment in history that would lead more Americans to serve others?

Looking at how Americans are responding, there are strong signs of hope. Within two years of the president’s call to service, the new Citizen Corps is mobilizing Americans nationwide to prepare for emergencies, including terrorist attacks. More than 900 local communities have formed Citizen Corps Councils in all states and the nation’s capital and territories. Doctors and nurses in 170 communities are now part of a new Medical Reserve Corps. Neighborhood Watch programs have nearly doubled; programs providing volunteers to police departments have increased 900 percent; and Community Emergency Response Team training has expanded from 170 communities in 28 states to 635 communities in 51 states and territories. Citizen Corps volunteers have responded to wildfires in California, Hurricane Isabel in the East, and tornadoes and floods in the Midwest.

Existing programs that the president targeted to expand are experiencing a similar response. Senior Corps, a program that attracts half a million older Americans to care for other seniors and tutor children, recruited an additional 33,000 volunteers last year and will recruit another 67,000 this year. Take Pride in America is enlisting 200,000 volunteers to improve our public lands. The response to AmeriCorps was so strongitoverwhelmeda decade-old system. Strong financial and management controls are being implemented to ensure accountability, as the administration and Congress work to expand AmeriCorps from 50,000 to 75,000 members.

The swelling response was not confined to domestic programs. Since January 2002, Peace Corps has received more than 200,000 inquiries for its 7,533 slots. While Peace Corps is working to double its volunteers over five years, other opportunities for service are needed. The president created Volunteers for Prosperity to deploy tens of thousands of American professionals on short-term assignments to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, provide clean water for the poor and open new markets for entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Nor has the robust response been limited to federally supported service programs. More than 700 CEOs of companies with 5 million employees have responded by forming Business Strengthening America. These leaders are fostering changes that are real and long-term — providing administrative leave and transportation for thousands of employees to read to children in public schools, and matching employee contributions to nonprofits where employees volunteer.

In just two months, more than 1,000 organizations registered to certify their volunteers for the new President’s Volunteer Service Award. This recognition honors adults who volunteer 100 hours, or anyone 14 or younger who serves 50 hours in one year. The Greatest Generation’s Bob Dole and John Glenn stepped forward to lead the new President’s Council on Service with Darrell Green. Presidential recognition can connect every American to the culture of service every year.

Millions of Americans are finding it easier to serve by accessing the USA Freedom Corps Volunteer Network — the most comprehensive online clearinghouse connecting citizens with service opportunities close to home or around the world.

For the first time, our country has an annual “civic index,” a Census Bureau survey showing that more than 59 million Americans volunteered regularly through a school, house of worship, or other organization in the year following that tragic day in September.

The response to the president’s call to service has been enthusiastic and strong for every program and category we measure. Americans are signing up in droves to become an even greater nation of joiners and givers. It is this selfless service to others, where citizens step forward to solve our toughest problems, that makes us unique in the world and connects us to what it really means to be an American.

John M. Bridgeland is assistant to the president and director of USA Freedom Corps at the White House.

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