Desperate economic times highlight the need for cost-effective, public-private measures to serve the needy in the United States.
Food banks’ supplies are set to reach new lows. Yet this year we will see millions of citizens reach out in record numbers to assist those in need — offering food, special care and compassion.
As the government seeks to deal with the economic crisis and relieve the distress felt by millions of families, we should not overlook the great American tradition of service. More than 60 million citizens every year are providing service to their neighbors and their communities.
President-elect Barack Obama has vowed to make service a central cause of his presidency. In his call to service outlining plans for a large expansion of citizen service, he said he would reach out to Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, young and old, and ask all of us for our service and active citizenship. ”We need your service, right now,” he said.
Here are a few examples of what ”We the People” can do right now and in the year ahead:
- We can help children in danger of dropping out of school by volunteering as tutors and mentors.
- Skilled professionals (lawyers, accountants, et al.) can go door to door in distressed communities to assist families facing mortgage foreclosure.
- Volunteers can support displaced families and children by helping them transition from homeless shelters to more permanent housing.
- Since financial stress and unemployment can lead to substance abuse, psychological despair and homelessness, community assistance centers and shelters will need many new volunteers and basic supplies.
However any such new government resources should be viewed not as a jobs program but as assets and agents necessary to manage and train millions of volunteers. These new forces can be rapidly assigned to existing nonprofits to recruit and organize unpaid, shorter-term volunteers.
Last year 75,000 AmeriCorps members recruited more than 1.7 million local volunteers. One of the best examples of this is AmeriCorps’ relationship with Habitat for Humanity, where members don’t just build homes, but most of all recruit, train and manage the community volunteers on whom Habitat relies. AmeriCorps members serving with Habitat for Humanity helped mobilize 200,000 community volunteers to build 1,700 homes.