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New volunteer corps proposed

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 30, 2002

"Got an opinion about the new Citizen Corps? E-mail it to [email protected]"

As President Bush visited southern states this week to pitch a new USA Freedom Corps, local disaster responders offered visions of their own.

In Tuesday's State of the Union address, Bush unveiled plans for a new Freedom Corps. With no price tag as of yet, the federal effort would focus, Bush said, on "responding in case of crisis at home; rebuilding our communities, and extending American compassion

throughout the world."

The Freedom Corps expands the existing federal programs of AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Peace Corps. It also includes a new Citizen Corps that, according to the White House, "will harness the power of citizens to help prepare their local communities for the threats of terrorism."

Federal officials see the Citizen Corps as a locally-driven initiative managed by newly created Citizen Preparedness Councils, supported at the state level by governors, and coordinated nationally by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA will coordinate with governors and mayors, along with state and local

emergency management offices, to create the councils and distribute matching funds.

According to the White House, the Citizen Corps "builds on existing crime prevention, natural disaster preparedness, and public health response networks."

Initially Citizen Corps will consist of members of the Citizen Preparedness Councils and participants in the following local programs: Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Volunteers in Public Service, Neighborhood Watch, Medical Reserve Corps.

But additional programs created by local Citizen Preparedness Councils will be considered by FEMA for recognition as Citizen Corps programs.

As President Bush this week travels to Florida, North Carolina, and other areas of the south to further explain his vision for volunteerism, local disaster responders in that region are sharing some visions of their own.

Bill Firestone, an education and training specialist with Florida's division of emergency management, offers training for CERT teams.

CERT is a training program that prepares people in neighborhoods, the workplace, and schools to take a more active role in emergency management planning, and to prepare themselves and others for disasters.

After Bush's State of the Union address, Firestone has been fielding calls from people asking how to join the new Citizen Corps. People can join up online at the new Citizen Corps Web site (www.citizencorps.gov).

For Firestone offers CERT training in a state that is a long-time acknowledged show-horse of disaster response.

The new Citizen Corps, he said, might well bring recognition to the people who work day-to-day in disaster preparedness and response. "It could bring a lot of positive publicity. People like us who work it

day-to-day could benefit."

But for the vision to work, it must stay focused on the local level, cautioned Firestone. "Each of us knows our community really well. Citizen Corps "would offer the guidelines but the essence would have to be adapted at the local level, so we can all feel a part of what we do in our neighborhood to make our community safer.

"We have to stay focused on neighbor helping neighbor."

The Citizen Corps - unlike the Peace Corps - ideally involves people working in their own hometowns, he added. "I hope we don't get carried away with joining up and shipping out to another state. My vision of this would have a national push but local application."

"Our sense is that we want to belong to a common good," added Firestone. "If that gets channeled in the right direction, it's a really good thing. It just might get some people out of their armchairs at night to join."

Other responders wondered how Citizen Corps will relate to existing disaster response groups.

Jerry Klassen is a project director for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) in Princeville, NC, where he is helping people rebuild homes after 1999's devastating Hurricane Floyd.

MDS -- one of few faith-based groups specifically named by FEMA in its federal response plan - is well known in the disaster response community for effectively training and managing volunteers.

Klassen wondered if, instead of promoting a new network of volunteers, the government might be better off helping agencies already involved in disaster response. "Many religious and non-faith-based groups are already doing this.

"I'm wondering if we're better off freeing up these organizations financially to allow them to do their job."

Klassen, who has been volunteering with MDS for more than 10 years, also believed a significant amount of local onsite management will be needed to effectively direct volunteers in the Citizen Corps. "It's going to take people - and I'm talking about paid staff -- to

manage the volunteers. Building a volunteer network takes a long time."

Klassen also said that, when corralling volunteers, it's important that they have some common conviction. "If you did a survey and asked people why they volunteer, they usually do it for a specific reason -- a conviction. For me, it's my commitment to Christ.

"When it comes to a government-managed volunteer network, people will participate as long as they support the government. But what happens when the wind is not blowing the government's way for some of those people?"

Got an opinion about the new Citizen Corps? E-mail it to [email protected]

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