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Viva volunteers!

When California's Proposition 13 cut into needed tax revenues, volunteers stepped in to help libraries, schools, hospitals, and other institutions maintain services that otherwise could not have been offered. This is just one example of the way the American tradition of volunteer activity is surviving despite the alleged decline of the work ethic, rise of the "me" ethic, and belittling of jobs when they are unpaid rather than paid. The status of the efforts of America's 60 milliom volunteers ought to be based on what they do and how they do it, as the current National Volunteer Week should serve to remind us.

The challenge is double-edged. It is not only for volunteers to be appreciated and respected by others, if indeed there are any "others," any individuals who do not at least in some small, unorganized manner give voluntary service to their fellow man. The challenge is also to the volunteers to respect the tasks they have undertaken and not short- change them because "I'm just a volunteer." Strange as it may sound to volunteers of the old school, some organizations now are asking volunteers to sign contracts describing what is expected to them and what they have committed themselves to do. Seen as clarification rather than coercion, such understandings can be helpful all around.

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But voluntary works and voluntary groups -- which assist democracies to accomplish so much that government would otherwise have to do -- ought to retain as much as possible of the freely-asked-freely-given spirit of neighbor helping neighbor. It doesn't take a National Volunteer Week to cherish this essential quality of American life. Just imagine the results of a work stoppage by all of America's volunteers at home and around the world.


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