March 8, 2009 -- In his address to Congress last month, President Barack Obama called on lawmakers to expand federally funded national service opportunities.
"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.
Democrats say they may be able to respond to that call by the end of this month.
The Senate is working on the Kennedy/Hatch Serve America Act of 2008, and the House is working on a similar bill, called the Generations Invigorating Volunteering and Education (GIVE) Act.
Each would more than triple the number of AmeriCorp volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000, at an estimated cost of a billion dollars a year.
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calf., said his committee will act on the bill this week, bring it to a vote by next week, with the goal of getting it to the president's desk before the April recess.
"This bill is going to the president's desk because he's absolutely captured the imagination of America to create a new generation of volunteers to expand the opportunities for volunteers from middle school to retired," Miller said.
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 expand opportunities for Americans 55 or older to volunteer in both the public and non-profit sectors.
The bill would also create "green" opportunities -- including a Clean Energy Corps to focus on environmental conservation. It would also create a Healthy Futures Corps, focusing on health care; a Veteran Services Corps, focusing on services for military veterans; and an Education Corps.
Previous attempts to expand AmeriCorps funding have failed since its inception in 1993. Miller said that while the investment would be substantial, with the economy in decline, this time, he believes the legislation will pass.
"This money is really leveraged into benefits way beyond the billion dollars that it cost and it's leveraged in the private communities and the corporate communities and the philanthropic communities dramatically all across the nation," he said.
AmeriCorps volunteers work in a variety of sectors -- from healthcare, to education, national parks and construction.
Jacob Debor is one of six AmeriCorps volunteers building houses in a lower income section of Washington, D.C. He moved here from Michigan and said this is much better than any work he could find at home.
"Coming from Michigan, there aren't really any job opportunities at all," he said. "If I were to find a part-time job in my home town, I mean it probably wouldn't last that long -- a lot of the factories that produce parts auto companies are shutting down."
Fellow volunteer Eric Hansen said AmeriCorps was the first job he was offered after he graduated college last May.
"It was a really nice alternative when I was looking for work, and kind of facing some difficulties in other sectors," he said.
Habitat for Humanity builds homes and sells them to low income buyers below market value. The buyer must also provide "sweat equity," several hundred hours of labor in building their own home.
Kenya Hunter, a mother of three, lives in public housing, but will soon live in one of the houses Debor and Hansen are building.
"Right now, the neighborhood that we're in, I don't really let them go outside and play, " Hunter said. "Lot of gun fire, drug selling, things like that, so to have our own home, where we have our own backyard where they can go outside and play would mean a lot."
Advocates of the legislation say it would provide job training opportunities -- and Hansen said he's picked up plenty of skills at the job site.
"It's a construction job, but the skills aren't construction -- it's volunteer management, leadership and being able to learn quickly. And those are three things I know I'll be able to use in the future," he said.
And then there are the benefits that they say you can't count in dollars and cents.
"That is just a whole other level of fulfillment that you can't find in any other job," Bart Thornburg said.
"There's no question did I make a contribution today? Did I do something to help this house?" Mary Olive Jones saidd. "Of course you did; you know it; you see it."