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One year ago today, President Obama signed one of the few bipartisan bills enacted in his administration so far. It was called the Serve America Act. This law creates more volunteer opportunities and triples the size of the AmeriCorps national service program. But the money is just starting to trickle out, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: A group of middle school students waded yesterday morning in a small stream in northern Virginia.
Unidentified Female #2: The water's seeping into my shoes.
FESSLER: They were there to test the quality of the water by seeing what kinds of insects they could find. Later, they're supposed to come up with a project to help fix problems they uncover, such as pollution.
Jessica Bromelkamp, with the nonprofit group called Earth Force, helps the students sort through what they've collected in their nets.
Ms. JESSICA BROMELKAMP (Earth Force): If you just kind of look through the leaves, just pick stuff up - open your hands...
Unidentified Female #2: ...something - it's a little...
Unidentified Male: Oh, look at that.
Unidentified Female #3: Oh, is that a little worm?
FESSLER: This summer, Bromelkamp will do similar work with disadvantaged middle-schoolers as part of a program called Summer of Service. It was created by the Serve America Act and gives participants up to $500 for college.
Jean Manney is with Innovations and Civic Participation, a group that spearheaded the idea, she says the goal is to teach at-risk kids how to become active in their communities.
Ms. JEAN MANNEY (Innovations and Civic Participation): We're also looking at leadership skills and trying to promote academic skills too, in terms of public speaking and critical thinking and literacy.
FESSLER: But Summer of Service is the only program created by the Serve America Act for which grants have been awarded so far. Several others are just getting off the ground. For example, $50 million has been set aside to fund nonprofits with innovative ideas for solving social problems, but that money won't go out until June.
Patrick Corvington is the new head of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He says it takes time to get the ball rolling. And his agency is still on track to triple the number of AmeriCorps slots to 250,000 over the next eight years.
Mr. PATRICK CORVINGTON (Corporation for National and Community Service): We'll meet those numbers because people want to serve. We're seeing a record increase in the number of organizations who are applying for more AmeriCorps members. We're seeing record numbers of young people who want to become engaged in service.
FESSLER: In fact, the agency says applications for AmeriCorps have tripled over the past year. Corvington says even more importantly, he's seen a new attitude about volunteering and national service.
Mr. CORVINGTON: I have to confess that in my early parts of my career, I was one of those who thought - volunteers, well, I guess I'll have them stuff some envelopes and do those kind of things. When I talk to executive directors today, they see volunteers as a critical resource for them.
FESSLER: He says the Serve America Act encourages such thinking among nonprofits seeking government grants. It's also pushing them to do a better job measuring the impact of their work.
But how well this plays out remains to be seen, says Howard Husick, of the Manhattan Institute, which advocates free-market thinking. He says the $50 million social innovation fund, for example, could identify creative nonprofits as models for the rest of the country.
Mr. HOWARD HUSICK (Manhattan Institute): Those can start to become the new normal for hidebound bureaucratized federal programs. The danger is that these bright young stars are themselves going to get captured and become bureaucratized.
FESSLER: He also worries about the impact on the nonprofit world of the government deciding who gets all these new AmeriCorps volunteers. But like others, he's still waiting to see how the new law is actually put into effect.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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