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How not to squander the volunteer spirit

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I hope President Bush, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, doesn't repeat his call on Americans to volunteer to help their country. The last thing we need is another moving, compelling call todo good - with so little follow through that it does a disservice to the whole cause of volunteerism.

When Mr. Bush called, a year ago, for Americans to commit at least two years or 4,000 hours of service to neighbor and nation, he was widely applauded. After Sept. 11, Americans had rushed to find ways to help - to the point that the Red Cross had to turn away donors, and Salvation Army warehouses in New York City overflowed into the streets.

This public desire to address our national vulnerabilities was just waiting to be tapped.

But in the weeks and months that followed, the administration faced a problem known to every itinerant preacher: All the charisma in the world will do little good if you get people all riled up and then have no church for them to join.

To be fair, Bush hired some very good people to head his new drive. The USA Freedom Corps set up a tiny headquarters, published a brochure, and created a neat website. Many observers claim that the main difficulty was that Congress appropriated only about $25 million for the new drive instead of the $230 million the White House requested.

Local organizers complain that they could get little seed money and what they could get was slow in coming.

All this is true. But as I see it, the problem is elsewhere.

The program created to recruit volunteers in the area of homeland security - the Citizen Corps, a sort of national version of the neighborhood watch program - was buried.

The Corps would provide training for many thousands in advanced first aid, assisting fire fighters, organizing evacuations, and patrolling important public assets, armed only with communication devices. They would be the voluntary troops of homeland protection. (My support does not extend to the controversial - now discarded - component of the program called Terrorism Information and Prevention System, or TIPS. Spying on friends and neighbors should definitely not be encouraged. We should serve as arms and legs of homeland protection, not "eyes and ears." Because the latter is so against the American grain, it would undermine the whole drive.)


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