Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Volunteer agencies were urged yesterday to tap into the pool of aging and retiring baby boomers at a forum on international volunteerism at the Brookings Institution.

“There are a lot of former revolutionaries who are retiring in their 50s and have tremendous skill sets to offer,” said Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, “and they want to make the most of the second half of their longer life spans.”

He cited the exhortation of President Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

The senator exhorted business firms to expand their support and “shared vision” for volunteerism and urged Congress to increase funding for government volunteer programs, such as the Peace Corps.

Rep. James T. Walsh, New York Republican and former Peace Corps volunteer to Nepal, voiced similar sentiment.

“There is a deep vein in our country for volunteerism.”

The goal of the Brookings initiative is to double international volunteerism in three years, from 50,000 people to 100,000 people. Margaret Sherraden, researcher at the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, said relatively little is known about international volunteerism.

According to the Washington University center, nearly 1 million Americans volunteered abroad at least once in 2005, most of them for two weeks or less.

Young people ages 15 to 24 were the most frequent international volunteers, followed by those ages 35 to 44. Top volunteer activities included teaching; mentoring youth; general labor; fundraising; working with food, clothing or crafts; and providing professional or management assistance.

“I believe Americans want to do a lot more [international volunteering], but they need to be pointed in the right direction,” said Robert Mallett, president of Pfizer Foundation.

Government, nongovernmental organizations, businesses and nonprofit agencies can’t improve quality of life for others by themselves, but can accomplish a lot if they do so as partners.

“Thousands of people working for companies like mine want to be agents of change,” Mr. Mallett said. “They have the skills. They have passion. They have the moral compass, just like you. They only lack the secure opportunity.”

Brookings plans an international volunteerism conference next spring, and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will be asked to participate. If they do, said Robert Pastor, vice president for international affairs at American University, a number of universities will join them.

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