- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Recovery from the economic crisis will require more than investing in infrastructure projects and shoring up social services. It also will mean summoning the spirit of the American people, in every community, to help their neighbors and solve problems.

In this context, national service legislation (the proposed G.I.V.E. Act in the House and the Serve America Act in the Senate) takes on critical importance. These bills would mobilize and encourage Americans of all ages to serve people in their communities. They are expected to be taken up on the House floor this week and on the Senate floor next week.

In a survey of Americans aged 44 to 79 last year, 4 in 10 said they expect to increase the time they spend volunteering in the next five years. Certainly there is no shortage of problems for them to address, such as tutoring or mentoring youth, helping older persons live independently, weatherizing homes, or promoting prevention and good health, to name a few. Boomers and their older counterparts stand ready to give back and in the words of AARP’s founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, “create the good.”

Today millions of people are giving back through AARP and the AARP Foundation - helping individuals find work, get tax refunds, stay healthy, access benefits and advocate on issues important to their families. At the same time, our experience in this area has made us keenly aware of the obstacles faced by people who want to do more to help others.

Many potential volunteers feel that lack of capacity on the part of nonprofits prevents them from making the best use of the skills and experiences they can contribute. For example, there are corporate executives eager to put their management skills to work as well as volunteers who want to apply their high-level skills in technology.

That is why it is vital that Congress make sure national service legislation includes a Volunteer Generation Fund. This fund would support local volunteer programs in recruiting, managing and supporting millions more volunteers; develop strong volunteer infrastructure organizations; address priorities such as education, the environment or disaster response; and provide technical assistance to local volunteer infrastructure organizations.

Without the Volunteer Generation Fund, many existing service programs and service providers will be overwhelmed in trying to manage all the volunteers who answer the call to give back to their nation and community. This Fund will enable the legislation to maximize the effectiveness of those who serve.

There are many reasons for hope as we look to volunteer service as a complement to government programs and a means to recovery and renewal. In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain both showed a strong commitment to expanding service. Members of Congress from both houses and both parties have provided thoughtful leadership on the issue of service. Perhaps most important, this growing bipartisan political will is matched by boomers and older Americans who want to make a positive difference in individual and community life.

Millions of Americans of all ages want to do more. In a recent AARP poll, 7 in 10 Americans said our country has not lived up to President Kennedy’s Inaugural challenge to “Ask what you can do for your country.”

Half a century later, in his own Inaugural address, President Obama struck a similar theme. “What is required of us now,” he said, “is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.” Service is a renewable resource we can capture free of partisanship and ideological differences.

By acting in a bipartisan manner that ought to be the guide on every issue, Congress and the president can take a major step this month to help “create the good.”

Thomas C. Nelson is Chief operating officer of AARP. For more information visit AARP.org/CreateTheGood.

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