What in the world would any rational person have against AmeriCorps, the organization that wants to do at home what the Peace Corps does abroad?
Generation X is supposed to be a selfish, soulless group, fixated on the bottom line and instant gratification. It is true that in some neighborhoods like mine, hundreds of future leaders are camping on the sidewalk to see "Star Wars, Episode I." But thousands of others are working for peanuts to help people who need help. AmeriCorps volunteers are making life easier for citizens who had no reason to think anyone cared about them.
AmeriCorps volunteers are building playgrounds, landscaping rundown schoolyards. They drive sick people to the doctor. They'll do what needs to be done, including tying somebody's shoes. Forty thousand people across the country are pitching in.
They dissolve racial barriers, try to persuade the homeless that all is not lost. For this, they receive $4,700 a year, and after two years of community service, they get a bonus of $4,700, a sum a young Wall Street trader would sneer at.
Peace Corps volunteers who do similar jobs in Third World countries are treated royally. They jump to the head of the line when jobs or university entrance is the issue. Congress wouldn't dream of cutting their appropriations. When retiring Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan appears before a committee, he is treated with respect. But when Harris Wofford, director of AmeriCorps, shows up, "I am heckled," he says.
Wofford gets static about "paid volunteers"--as if the Peace Corps people didn't get a stipend of $200 a month for living in mud huts and eating the local cuisine. Wofford is philosophical about the unequal treatment he gets. He was present at the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961, and he noticed that it acquired its great cachet after John F. Kennedy's assassination. Today's critics hate to give President Clinton a Kennedy-type legacy.
He has proceeded with monumental tact to smooth Republican hackles. They rail against all government programs, and he has braided AmeriCorps projects into those of non-governmental organizations that are pursuing the same ends. They cooperate with some 700 groups--Habitat for Humanity, City Year and almost countless corporations that are introducing their employees to the once exotic notion of getting your kicks out of helping the down and out with literacy, housing and job training.
Two years ago, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) moved to take $30 million from the AmeriCorps budget and transfer it to the space program. The Senate beat him by 21 votes and Wofford thinks the worst of the opposition is over. It isn't just that Republicans have finally noticed that AmeriCorps is popular in their home states and that Republican governors are becoming fans one by one. Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican presidential candidate, is a convert. He writes a rapture in his campaign book.
Last week, City Year, a highly successful Boston project, held a big assembly at Howard University, at which Colin Powell spoke about volunteerism. All over Washington, AmeriCorps projects were on display. At Trinity College, a number of AmeriCorps volunteers were doing their usual day of helping high school dropouts to get their General Equivalency Diploma. They don't just like their work, they love it.
Littleton and its cliques and guns seemed a long way away. So did the round-the-clock lines for the latest "Star Wars" movie. They don't care that the Peace Corps gets the glory or that their classmates are up to their armpits in dividends. "I'd rather make a difference," said a pretty girl just out of Ohio University.