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Congress OKs $5.7B bill to expand public service opportunities

WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of Americans, from teenagers to baby boomers, soon will get a fresh chance to lend a helping hand in a time of need after Congress voted Tuesday to expand ways for people to serve the country and each other.

The House approved a $5.7 billion bill that takes ambitious steps on public service, including tripling the number of positions in the Clinton-era AmeriCorps program and establishing a fund to help nonprofit organizations recruit and manage more volunteers.

AmeriCorps offers a range of volunteer opportunities including housing construction, youth outreach, disaster response and caring for the elderly.

President Obama, who began an eight-day European trip Tuesday, plans to sign the measure when he returns to Washington.

Applications to AmeriCorps have exploded with the plunging employment market. Last month, there were 9,731 applications submitted to the AmeriCorps online system, more than triple the 3,159 submitted in February 2008.

In the AmeriCorps program, 75,000 people spend 10 months to a year helping build affordable homes or responding to disasters. Most receive an annual stipend of slightly less than $12,000.

Last year, more than 500 AmeriCorps members helped coordinate more than 200,000 Habitat for Humanity volunteers to build 1,700 new homes.

The bill provides for gradually increasing the size of AmeriCorps to 250,000 enrollees over eight years.

“People are feeling their own pain, but they’re also feeling their neighbors’ pain,” said Alan Solomont, chairman of the government-run Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps.

The legislation outlines five broad categories where people can direct their service: helping the poor, improving education, encouraging energy efficiency, strengthening access to health care and assisting veterans.

Mark Andrews, senior director for U.S. operations for Habitat for Humanity International, said the bill was “absolutely necessary” because it will provide the organization with more participants who have specialized skills in construction or family services. These AmeriCorps members are then able to train more volunteers.

“National service gives us the opportunity to bring in some of the best and the brightest, in terms of young people right out of school, as well as folks who have completed their career and want to give back to their communities in a more significant way,” Andrews said.



www.volunteer.gov – federal government site that gives Americans a way to search for service opportunities within a ZIP code or state.

www.americorps.gov – to join AmeriCorps, or call 800-942-2677.

The Associated Press

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