WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who got his political start as a community organizer, signed legislation Tuesday to more than triple the number of government-backed volunteers across the country at a cost of billions of dollars.
At a bill-signing ceremony at a public boarding school for disadvantaged youth before he headed off to a tree-planting project, Obama told Americans, "We need your service right now at this moment in history," and asked people to "stand up and play your part" and "put your shoulder up against the wheel."
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act fulfills an Obama campaign promise to engage more Americans in civic life and enables the president to build on the legacies of Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, who created the nation's Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs.
Obama recalled that through his own work with displaced steelworkers in Chicago in the 1980s, "I found a community that embraced me, citizenship that was meaningful, the direction that I had been seeking. I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America."
He also noted that his wife, Michelle, had run an AmeriCorps program in Chicago. Beyond the personal fulfillment of community work, he said, expanding government's role in organizing volunteers is a recognition that "the answer to our challenges cannot come from government alone."
Sen. Kennedy, D-Mass., the bill's namesake and a longtime liberal lawmaker, who's battling brain cancer, drew a tender standing ovation as he joined Obama at the bill signing. Obama handed Kennedy the first of several pens that he used to sign the legislation.
Struggling slightly with his remarks, Kennedy recalled how his late brother JFK had called a generation to service. "You have inspired a new generation," Kennedy told Obama. "You have walked the walk, and today you have paved it for many, many others."
The event attracted an all-star crowd, including Clinton, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and JFK's daughter, Caroline Kennedy. Vice President Joe Biden, Michelle Obama and congressional lawmakers from both parties also were present.
For the students seated in the bleachers at the SEED School, however, where community service is part of the curriculum, the biggest draw in the room besides Barack Obama was hip-hop star Usher, who promotes community service programs.
The legislation that Obama signed will expand AmeriCorps positions to as many as 250,000 by 2017 from 75,000 today.
Typical programs include youth tutoring and mentoring, building affordable housing and responding to natural disasters. The variety of postings will expand to reflect administration priorities on clean energy, health care, poverty, education and veterans.
Programs for volunteers who are middle- and high school students or senior citizens, including foster grandparents, also will increase.
Organizers hope to leverage millions of unpaid volunteers by expanding the number who are compensated. If they're fully funded, the expansions will cost taxpayers up to $5.7 billion in the first five years, with thousands more participants paid modest annual living-expense stipends of $11,000 to $22,000, and education assistance of up to $5,350, in exchange for their service.
Some Republicans have criticized the initiative as more big government at a time when the nation can't afford it. Supporters argue that it will give young people an alternative to entering a lousy job market, while helping to improve struggling communities.
In connection with the bill signing, the president announced his plans to nominate a new chief executive officer, Maria Eitel, to oversee the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps. Eitel is the president of the Nike Foundation, and she worked on President George H.W. Bush's media team two decades ago.
Alan Solomont, the chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said that expanding the programs fit a demand as more Americans, especially young people, were seeking service jobs through AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and short-term teaching programs.
"This upcoming generation has grown up in a country affected by 9-11, by (Hurricane) Katrina, by the current economic crisis," he said. "These are things that tend to bring people together. They are much more diverse than any generation before. They're more practical and less ideological." More online communication has boosted volunteer organizing efforts, too.
Solomont also recognizes an "Obama effect" of younger Americans being drawn to the president's call for service. From November, when Obama was elected, to March, AmeriCorps received 48,520 online applications, more than triple the number of online applications during the same period the year before.
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