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Volunteers present challenge

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON | August 27, 2002


"After Sept. 11, a window of opportunity has opened...Our nation still has a great need for volunteers."

—Leslie Lenkowsky


About 15,000 people spontaneously showed up at ground zero immediately after Sept. 11. And, aside from a few who looted what was left of the stores, most of them just wanted to help.

But they couldn't, said Leslie Lenkowsky, chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

"Many found themselves without clear guidance. Many who wanted to be helpful found it difficult to do so," he said. "So many people showed up to search the rubble at the World Trade Center that the site became more dangerous than it already was."

"We had volunteers just show up -- unsolicited, unneeded, not requested," agreed Ed Jacoby, Jr., director of New York's emergency management office, and in order to accommodate them, "we had to set up another city. We had to feed them and take care of sanitation and other things. But we just couldn't use them."

Today nearly a year after the attacks -- people still want to do something to help. And many of them still don't know exactly what to do.

In remarks at the National Press Club Tuesday, Lenkowsky tried to address the problem head-on. His Corporation for National Service -- a federal agency created in 1993 -- is at the helm of harnessing President Bush's national call for citizens to help support the war on terror by getting involved in their own community.

That means, Lenkowsky said, volunteers won't necessarily be involved in homeland security. Instead they might be tutoring children, serving as companions to elderly people, or participating in water conservation programs.

Will this really harness the public's pent-up need to do something about the terrorists? "If this sounds a little far-fetched to you I would remind you that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that a democracy's greatest asset is an engaged citizenry."

"We need to get back to the tradition of the Roosevelt years."

Lenkowsky's advocates are pushing for reauthorization of the Corporation for National Service -- a bill is pending in the House -- that will expand, among other programs, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.

Both corps programs are part of the larger USA Freedom Corps, announced by President Bush in his January State of the Union address as Lenkowsky and his colleagues worked frantically to get the Freedom Corps Web site operational in time. "Now that's pressure," he said.

Now volunteers are visiting the Freedom Corps Web site, and signing up in droves for AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Neighborhood Watch, and other government programs. But -- in an odd echo of Sept. 11 itself -- there may be no place to put them, acknowledged Lenkowsky.

"Unless we expand funding we will have to turn people away."

Meanwhile many local disaster response groups report it's now a challenge to find volunteers to work on projects not related to Sept. 11 -- flood recovery in Houston, for example.

AmeriCorps and Senior Corps participants occasionally participate in local disaster response efforts. But there is no defined national relationship between the federal Corporation for National Service and the faith based disaster response organizations that typically help support local response efforts.

Ironically, faith-based groups could be looking for volunteers at the same time government programs could potentially be turning them away.

Is it because people don't trust charities anymore? Not likely, said Lenkowsky, citing an Independent Sector poll that showed 64 percent of the American public still trusts charities - the same level of trust they had pre-Sept. 11. Immediately after Sept. 11 - but before scandal rocked the American Red Cross and other charities - 71 percent trusted charities.

Part of the problem is that people think of volunteering as something they do spontaneously, explained Lenkowsky. "But volunteering requires more to be useful in the threats we now face."

Training for volunteers -- whether in disaster preparedness, spiritual care or childcare -- has become even more of a focus for faith-based groups and other voluntary organizations across the country.

As the Corporation for National Service launched a series of TV commercials aimed at encouraging Americans to "give back," perhaps even more will seek training. And as CNN continues to unearth its cache of terrorist training videos, public incentive may -- at least temporarily -- grow once again.

But what will the volunteers do? In the event of a large-scale catastrophe, at least some government officials hope they stay out of the way and let the experts to their jobs this time around.

Because it's the volunteers who just show up at the site that cause disaster response professional to gnash their teeth. "Their generosity stretched our charities," said Lenkowsky.

Lenkowsky said volunteers could possibly support law enforcement personnel. That doesn't mean arming regular citizens, he said. "There are a lot of things law enforcement does that don't require guns. I'm talking about safety patrols, fingerprinting, and other routine tasks. On the public health side, there's recordkeeping."

Will volunteers busy fingerprinting and recordkeeping be able to control their urge to run to the next disaster site? Lenkowsky admitted he didn't know. "There is much work to be done," he said.

"After Sept. 11, a window of opportunity has opened. We should not lose the momentum toward civic connectedness. Our nation still has a great need for volunteers."


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