Serving America

Apr 21, 2009 11:45am

ABC News’ Yunji de Nies reports: Later today, President Obama will sign the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a bill that will more than triple the number of AmeriCorp volunteers to over 250,000. The act will cost taxpayers roughly a billion dollars a year, over the next five years.  White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes hailed the legislation as "the most sweeping expansion of national service programs in many years." President Obama called on lawmakers to pass the bill in his address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 25th. "To encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Sen. Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country — Sen. Edward Kennedy," the president said. The bill moved through Congress at warp speed — in Washington-terms — with the final version passing on March 31st. AmeriCorp volunteers participate in a variety of service programs, including tutoring and mentoring, park restoration, disaster relief, and building low income housing. Each program varies, but on average, AmeriCorps volunteers earn about $1,000 a month, plus medical benefits, housing assistance and $4,725 in education awards that can be applied to future studies. The legislation would increase that education award to $5,350, the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2009-10 school year, and increase with Pell Grant increases over time. It would also establish new programs for youth, including the Summer of Service program, in which middle and high school students could earn a $500 education award to be used for college costs. It would also expand opportunities for Americans ages 55 and older to volunteer in both the public and non-profit sectors. "Today is a really dramatic day for the service movement," said Stephen Goldsmith, vice chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorp.  Goldsmith says the bill’s passage is timely, given the struggling non-profit sector during this economic downturn. Many AmeriCorp programs work in tandem with non-profit organizations. "It allows us to provide important services to strengthen the capacity of non-profits and allow them to manage more volunteers," he said. The White House says the bill will also provide some relief to people looking for employment in a tight job market. In March, AmeriCorp received more than 17,000 online applications, triple the number from the same time last year. In the last five months, AmeriCorp applications were up 234 percent, compared to the same period a year ago. "Applications to AmeriCorp are triple what they were a year ago. Peace Corp applications are up, programs like City Year and Teach for America are being overwhelmed by the number of people that are applying," said Alan Solomont, chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service. "So what’s happening is we’re responding to something that’s percolating up." The bill also establishes Sept. 11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. Bill Clinton started AmeriCorp in 1993, but Congress has not reauthorized the program since 1996. The former president will join President Obama and Sen. Kennedy at the bill signing. Afterwards, the president and first lady, along with the vice president and his wife, will participate in a service event. Here is our previous report on the House version of the bill — called the "GIVE Act." — Yunji de Nies

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