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Why volunteerism has reached historic high in US
01 February 2007
by Amy Green

To Linda Rogewitz and her husband, it can be a matter of life or death. When they get a call, they drop everything – birthday parties, other engagements – to rush to the side of an injured bird. They save dozens of birds a week, they estimate, as volunteers for the Audubon Society's Center for Birds of Prey in Orlando.

"You don't have to make a grand effort," says Ms. Rogewitz, a massage therapist in Kissimmee, Fla., seated in the center's courtyard surrounded by caged birds. Two owls the couple brought in recently are being treated in hopes they can be released eventually. "If you wait for that grand effort, you'll never get anything done," this volunteer advises. "Start small."

Those small donations of time are adding up: More Americans than ever before are volunteering. In 2005, 29 percent of adults were serving – a 30-year high, according to a December report by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).

It's partly because volunteerism is uniquely rooted in the American character, some experts say. Barn-raisings and harvest seasons bonded communities long ago. Today, as mentoring, drug rehabilitation, and other programs depend primarily on volunteers, and as religious groups reach far beyond their congregations to address social problems, the trend is poised to engender real change, says David Eisner, chief executive of the CNCS.

"There are no other countries that have the kind of deep-rooted volunteering ethic that we have," Mr. Eisner says. "If we're able to engage volunteers in our country to visit these issues ... volunteers won't just turn the tide and make a difference, but we can fundamentally solve some of our most intractable problems."

Three age groups – older teens, baby boomers, and seniors – are driving the upsurge. And as these teens grow and boomers retire, bucking the expectation they will slow down, together they could expand volunteerism even more, Eisner says. The CNCS, a federal agency that since 1993 has fostered civic engagement through community service, has launched a push to boost the number of US volunteers by 10 million to 75 million by 2010.

Education and youth service organizations such as schools and Boy Scouts, in particular, are seeing an increase in the number of volunteers. Older teens more than doubled their volunteering rate since 1989 from 13 percent to 28 percent, according to the CNCS report. AmeriCorps, a network of domestic service programs throughout the US, has grown, too, from some 25,000 participants to more than 70,000 since it was established in 1994.

The findings came as no surprise to Howard Rosing, executive director of the Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning at DePaul University in Chicago. The center promotes community service and tracks trends and statistics on volunteering. Today's students want to be involved and to have an impact on important social issues, he says.

One of them is Stephanie Treffert, who led 100 fellow college students to the Gulf Coast in December to help them rebuild after hurricane Katrina. Ms. Treffert, now a sophomore at Marquette University in her hometown of Milwaukee, was a freshman at Loyola University in New Orleans when Katrina hit in 2005.

Her affection for the Big Easy prompted her in 2006 to form MARDI GRAS – Making a Real Difference in the Gulf Region and Areas Surrounding. She obtained funding for her organization from Marquette's student government and organized two trips to the region. The students made the journey in minivans they rented and worked in New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama. She plans a third trip this spring.

Recent disasters such as Katrina, the tsunami in South Asia in 2004, and the terrorist attacks in 2001 showed many people that they are not far removed from poverty, Treffert says. "You see this, and it's America. It's not a third-world country," she says of her experience on the Gulf Coast. "These are people you could have [gone] to school with."

While the disasters contributed to the trend, it was under way before they occurred, Mr. Rosing says. Americans today are better educated and have longer life spans, leading to increased volunteerism, Eisner says.

Schools requiring service

High schools in Washington require community service as part of their curriculum, and course work at high schools in Maryland include a community service component. In 2005, Tulane University began to mandate community service for graduation as a response to hurricane Katrina.

At the same time, companies, including CVS, Best Buy, and The Home Depot, are giving employees time to volunteer and are rewarded with more productivity and higher retention rates, Eisner says.

"The hope is that, with more engagement with the community and diverse issues, students become more active at the political level. They become more politically or civically engaged in the political process and become more active in creating policies that address the systematic problems we're working on," Rosing says.

Beyond the 9-to-5 job

Americans want something more than a 9-to-5 job, says Annmarie Emmet of Washington, who joined the Peace Corps at age 71. A retired government banker who never married, Ms. Emmet began volunteering at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall 18 years ago. In 2002, she journeyed to the African nation of Lesotho, where she spent two years helping those affected by the AIDS crisis. Her reason for volunteering is simple: She enjoys helping people.

"So many people sit in front of a computer in an office, and I feel sorry for them," Emmet says. "I think so many people go to real 9-to-5-type jobs and don't find a lot of reward in it, and I think maybe being able to help someone or maybe being able to offer something that is not expected, that can make people feel good."