- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - People who want to give back to their communities through service will get more opportunities to do so under a bill being signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

The $5.7 billion bill triples the size of the AmeriCorps service program over the next eight years, and expands ways for students and seniors to earn money for college through their volunteer work. It aims to foster and fulfill people’s desire to make a difference, such as by mentoring children, cleaning up parks or building and weatherizing homes for the poor.

Bolstering voluntary public service programs has been a priority of Obama, who credits his work as a community organizer in his early 20s for giving him direction in life.

The White House said the president “will call on people across the country to serve their communities and work together to tackle the nation’s tough challenges.”

Obama is set to visit the SEED School of Washington, a public boarding school that serves inner-city students facing problems in both the classroom and at home, for the signing ceremony. Afterward, he and first lady Michelle Obama will participate in a service project.

Obama on Tuesday also nominated Nike Inc. vice president Maria Eitel to lead the federal agency that oversees the country’s national service programs.

Eitel, who’s also president of the Nike Foundation, would have to be confirmed by the Senate to become CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Congress passed the bill last month with largely bipartisan support and Obama is seeking $1.1 billion to fund it next year. Some Republicans complain it is too costly and is an unnecessary intrusion by government into something Americans already do eagerly and in great numbers _ helping their neighbors and communities.

The legislation provides for gradually increasing the size of Clinton-era AmeriCorps to 250,000 enrollees from its current 75,000. It outlines five broad categories where people can direct their service: helping the poor, improving education, encouraging energy efficiency, strengthening access to health care and assisting veterans.

AmeriCorps offers a range of volunteer opportunities including housing construction, youth outreach, disaster response and caring for the elderly. Most receive an annual stipend of slightly less than $12,000 for working 10 months to a year.

AmeriCorps has seen a recent surge in applications, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the program.

In March, the organization received 17,038 online AmeriCorps applications, nearly double those received in the previous month and nearly triple the 6,770 received last March.

Alan Solomont, who chairs AmeriCorps’ board, said former President John F. Kennedy’s call to service inspired more people to help others than just those who joined the Peace Corps. He said this national service legislation could produce the same effect.

“It is not unlike the moment in 1960 when President Kennedy asked Americans, you know, to serve, but it is certainly going to engage millions more today,” Solomont said in a conference call arranged by the White House.

The bill also ties volunteer work to money for college.

People 55 and older could earn $1,000 education awards by getting involved in public service. Those awards can be transferred to a child, grandchild or even someone they mentored.

Students from sixth grade through senior year of high school could earn a $500 education award for helping in their neighborhoods during a new summer program.

The bill is named for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who, with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been its champion. Kennedy, who is being treated for brain cancer, is expected to attend the signing.

___

On the Net:

AmeriCorps: https://www.americorps.gov

Corporation for National and Community Service: https://www.nationalservice.gov

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