Service Ethic Returns with New Domestic `Peace Corps'

Article excerpt

FORGING the vision for the Peace Corps, President Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, "To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves."

Today, President Clinton joins 1,000 young volunteers on the White House lawn and more than 14,000 others by satellite to initiate them into his inaugural vision: a national service program known as "AmeriCorps."

Although AmeriCorps is operating on a vision borrowed from the Peace Corps and its domestic relative, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Mr. Clinton's program is bigger - and initially more popular.

Charged with "getting things done," 20,000 volunteers - versus 6,500 Peace Corps volunteers - will be dispatched this year to inner cities and rural areas to work with community organizations in the areas of education, public safety, human needs, and the environment.

In return, AmeriCorps participants will get a bonus that Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers do not: up to $9,450 to help pay for an education.

According the Eli Segal, director of the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that runs the program, "There are well in excess of 100,000 young people ... eager to participate in AmeriCorps."

Clinton hopes that eventually all 100,000 will be able to join. The budget for the program, which begins Oct. 1, is $300 million - compared with the Peace Corp's $219 million. For next year, Clinton wants to double the budget, but he will need to convince Congress of the merits of the program.

Why such a resounding response so far? "There is a trend toward a greater social conscience," says Linda Sax of the Los Angeles-based Higher Education Research Institute, which surveys 240,000 college freshmen each year.

"Students are more committed to social issues than they have been since the '60s," she says. "They care about issues like race, the environment, and family."

But at the same time, she says, "they are also more realistic" - an attitude she attributes to the tough circumstances in which many youths grow up.

Both attitudes - idealism and realism - seem to work in Clinton's favor and make-up the strong response to his program.

Four weeks ago, for instance, Sandra Hollinger returned from a two-year Peace Corps tour in Botswana.

Still bursting with idealism, she became an AmeriCorps trainer. Working for a "Weed and Seed" program in Philadelphia, Ms. Hollinger will train AmeriCorps volunteers to provide social services, build community gardens, and organize anti-drug vigils.

"In Botswana, the ethic of service is just a part of the people," but in the United States, she says, "there was a lull during which we thought `me, me, me. …