The case for community service

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Peter Reilly from Belfast served in the US Air Force. He is retired from a career in finance and teaches various courses at Senior College Belfast.

Whether the lens you’re looking at our great country is left, right or centre, it’s hard not to worry. Today, unfortunately, we see good people fully convinced that the political philosophy of the other (if adopted) will (without a doubt) destroy the country.

Yet history tells us that the country can come together and work as a force to achieve great good.

How do we create an environment where people recognize that on both sides of today’s burning issues there are legitimate, serious, and substantive viewpoints worthy of consideration? Benevolence is not just going to come. If we think the holy spirit is going to come down at some point and sprinkle chewing gum dust on us, we have a long wait.

When John Kennedy began his presidency, one of his first initiatives was to create the Peace Corps – Americans who strive to make the world a better place. Not by espousing politics, but by helping people through concrete, grassroots-oriented projects. Talk to anyone who has served in the Peace Corps and what stands out is the pride of having real accomplishments and shared experiences with people who were totally different from themselves.

In the 1960s, when I was in my twenties, I spent four years in the army. When I look back, what stands out are the friends that have been made. All of us from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds – black, brown, white, rich and poor. I had friends from West Virginia, Tennessee, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, California, everywhere. We got to know each other, we had fun together, we worked together, we complained together.

Nobody is pleading for a military project, but the gathering of various young people is no longer happening.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed legislation creating the AmeriCorps, a sort of national Peace Corps. Today, more than 270,000 Americans are members and volunteers engaged in intensive service. In return, volunteers may receive small financial compensation, student loan deferrals, and possibly educational assistance. There is evidence that civic attitudes are strengthened and members can choose careers in public service.

Perhaps it is time to build on these programs, perhaps to introduce a “compulsory” community service program for our young people – a year or two of service to our country or state.

Our young people are watching the older generation rule the country, and they are surely not impressed. It’s time to start bringing people together, to offer the experience of giving back, of sharing challenges.

The fact remains that there are really few places, institutions, organizations of any size that push Americans into situations where they get to know different people from different places.

Even our representatives in Washington are in an isolated tech bubble.

We don’t need a military project, but we need something with a purpose that will inspire young and old to get to know and understand each other. In the late 1980s, Sam Nunn, a US Senator from Georgia, and others proposed tying student loan aid to community service. A requirement for some type of service – military or community – in exchange for a path to higher education. It included a national agency to organize and channel this new workforce. Some people have found a ton of reasons (real and unreal) why we shouldn’t. Unfortunately, a good idea failed and died.

Now may be the time for a mandatory community service program, not just for the work to be done, but perhaps more importantly for the purpose of bringing us together. Education, infrastructure, climate change, etc. — the challenges are there. The game changer is not.

Jill E. Washington