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O Volunteers!

When a galaxy of former US presidents summiteer with the incumbent in April, no one will be laughing at George Bush's "thousand points of light."

That was Mr. Bush's mocked metaphor for a nationwide network of charitable organizations shining "in a broad and peaceful sky." At the time - his GOP presidential acceptance speech in 1988 - the imagery struck critics as a wimpy, starry-eyed feint in his party's battle to reduce the role of government in meeting human needs.

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No more. Now a Republicanized President Clinton says of his predecessor in the White House: "He understood that so much of what is good in America has to be done, and is being done, by people who are outside Washington." And Mr. Clinton adds the sincerest compliment of seeking more points of light by convening the summit, set for Philadelphia (April 27-29), to promote volunteering.

Besides Bush, former Presidents Ford and Carter will be there, with President Reagan represented by spouse Nancy. The chairman is no less than the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, retired Gen. Colin Powell, who says, "This will be about Americans getting off the sidelines and getting on the playing field."

Clinton's Americorps program to encourage community service attests to his own preexisting enthusiasm for voluntarism. With the Philadelphia team behind him, he should be able to counter the wary who wonder if this is one more variation on his campaign approach of trumpeting minor initiatives as major breakthroughs.

Voluntarism is already a major part of the US scene, and not only here. Japan's Volunteer Network links volunteers to needs from care of animals to music for the disabled. A London association offers experience abroad, placing British volunteers in American inner cities, for example.

And someone seems to be hearing a new version of Walt Whitman's call to 19th-century youth: "... all the rest on us depend,/ Pioneers! O pioneers!" The number of American teenagers in volunteer activities grew by 7 percent between 1992 and 1996, from 12.4 million to 13.3 million, ages 12 to 17. This according to a survey released last month by Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization whose members include voluntary organizations such as the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and Sierra Club. The survey found that volunteering is an activity most likely to be cultivated in childhood and early teen years. Teens who had had positive adult role models were nearly twice as likely to volunteer as those who did not.

We know of one elder volunteer who says he never thought of it before, but his mother did keep nudging him after school to go and read to a housebound friend or take cookies to what he thought of as a little old lady.

If presidents and generals are the nation's role models, they have an opportunity in April to show their roles are more than rhetorical. Mr. Bush can point to the private Points of Light Foundation formed in the wake of his speech. It now provides support to more than 500 volunteer centers, and they channel a million volunteers each year to thousands of organizations.

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Volunteer impulses can be found everywhere. In California's San Mateo and Santa Clara counties the Environmental Volunteers give schoolchildren field trips and classroom presentations on nature and science. In Hampton, Conn., a small organic farm gives part of its sales to SAVE (Support American Volunteer Efforts), an organization it formed to get behind America's 89 million volunteers.

No one needs to wait for the April summit to make that 89 million and 1.

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