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Volunteerism surges among down and out

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As a tall, lean Jose Oliver unrolls a sleeping bag to give to a homeless man who has wandered into St. Ann's in New York's South Bronx, he knows exactly how important thickness is for warmth.

Not that many years ago, Mr. Oliver was himself out on the streets in the cold. But in 1994, he too came to St. Ann's for help. He now volunteers here as often as he can.

"You give back what you receive, you know? You show appreciation," he says with a sparkle in his deep-set eyes.

Oliver is part of a national resurgence of volunteerism among low-income people in some of the country's most scarred urban communities. The trend can be traced in part to welfare reform, which put pressure on inner cities to become self-reliant - and, say critics, gave them more hunger and homelessness to contend with. But some experts say it's also an outgrowth of an informal tradition long established within minority communities: pitching in to help one another.

"It's called helping out - feeding a neighbor, taking care of their kids when needed - and people have been doing it to survive for generations," says Felicia Brown of the Points of Light Foundation in Washington. "It's new to us, because we're just starting to investigate it, but it's not new to them."

While volunteerism is at record highs nationally, some of the highest rates of increase have been among African-Americans and Hispanics, according to the Independent Sector, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. Of those communities, 47 and 46 percent give of their time, respectively.

At St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction (SACHR), volunteerism has grown exponentially over the past few years, along with the type of services it provides. It started out as a needle-exchange program at the height of the AIDS and crack epidemics in the South Bronx; now it provides an array of services from education and training, to food and clothing for the homeless.

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