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Bush Pushes His Volunteerism Plan

Policy: President seeks backing for his Freedom Corps, aimed at helping to spur a communal spirit in the terror fight.

January 31, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — President Bush, on a trip to friendly Southern territory, campaigned Wednesday to build support for the USA Freedom Corps he has created to foster the communal spirit sparked among many Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The president and his aides put flesh on the $560-million volunteerism program he outlined in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, unveiling its Web site and a toll-free telephone number to help spur what he hopes will evolve into a vastly expanded U.S. commitment to voluntary action.

"History has called us to action, and action we will take," Bush said, speaking to about 6,000 people, many of whom lined up before noon to attend the mid-afternoon appearance at a local arena.

The White House has presented the volunteerism proposal as a key part of Bush's domestic agenda this year, one that appears less controversial than his faith-based initiative, which seeks to meld the charitable works of religious groups with the social welfare role of government. That initiative has stalled in Congress amid questions about government funding of religious groups.

The Freedom Corps reflects the administration's effort to answer the question, "What can I do?" that public officials have heard often in response to Bush's call for the country to come together to fight terrorism.

"If people want to fight terror, do something kind for a neighbor. Join the USA Freedom Corps," Bush said. "We will show the world that values, universal values, must be respected, and must be adhered to. And as a result, the world will be more peaceful."

The program, created by Bush's signature Tuesday on an executive order but dependent on funding by Congress to take root, would have multiple roles. It would give citizens a more direct role in domestic security through a new group known as the Citizen Corps; expand the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps started by President Clinton; and double the size of the Peace Corps, which sends American aid workers overseas.

The Citizen Corps would include:

* Retired doctors and other health care professionals who would be asked to augment local medical personnel in an emergency;

* A corps of transportation workers, truckers, letter carriers, train conductors and others who would be asked to report suspicious activity to a hotline;

* An expanded Neighborhood Watch program that would grow beyond its original role to include unspecified missions to prevent terrorism.

Bush's father sought to encourage voluntarism as president, establishing a "Points of Light" office in the White House that honored the work of volunteer groups and individuals. The younger Bush's program is more ambitious--and costly--in nature.

The president said that while the United States can "fight evil" with its military, "at home you fight evil with acts of goodness. You overcome the evil in society by doing something to help somebody."

Bush urged his listeners to call up http://www.usafreedomcorps.gov, the Web site established for the program.

"Or you can call this number--it sounds like I'm making a pitch, and I am," he said, drawing laughter. "1-877-USACorps. If somebody out there is interested in figuring out how to serve, it's 1-877-USACorps."

In his State of the Union speech, Bush called on all Americans to spend 4,000 hours over the course of their lives performing volunteer work--a cumulative total of two years.

John Bridgeland, the presidential assistant who will head the eight-person USA Freedom Corps office in the White House, said surveys found such specific calls to volunteer action produced a marked response, more than doubling participation.

Suggesting a high level of presidential interest, Bush plans to chair the council overseeing the program.

Under Bush's plan, the number of volunteers in the Peace Corps, created by President Kennedy in 1961, would double to 15,000, equal to its peak number in 1966. The program would expand its "crisis corps" teams to serve in Afghanistan and would seek to increase its work in Islamic nations.

AmeriCorps, whose participants serve U.S. rural and urban communities by teaching, helping build homes and performing other tasks, would see a 50% increase in its numbers, growing to 25,000. The administration hopes AmeriCorps participants, in turn, will attract an additional 75,000 local volunteers to their efforts.

The Senior Corps, in which volunteers age 55 and older provide community service, would expand by 100,000.

Bush's trip concludes today with events in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Atlanta. It is intended to give him a continued political bounce from the State of the Union speech, presenting him among cheering supporters and, during his stop in Winston-Salem, on a stage filled with uniformed police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Reiterating a point he made in his State of the Union speech, he said: "Corporate America must be open about its books and accounting systems, so that shareholders and employees know the full truth about what's going on, on balance sheets."

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