COLLEGE PARK -- Returning to the campus where six years ago he praised a small pilot project that blossomed into his domestic volunteer program, President Clinton told University of Maryland students yesterday that he wants to double the size of that initiative and open it to high school students.
"I ask you all to help me reach others, to take advantage of this opportunity, to use this moment to prove that this generation of young people, far from being a generation of cynics and slackers, is instead a generation of doers and patriots," Clinton said in proposing a significant expansion of the AmeriCorps program.
Currently, 40,000 AmeriCorps volunteers are working nationwide in a variety of programs from helping children succeed in school and stay off drug-infested streets to building homes for the homeless and helping communities recover from natural disasters.
Volunteers are paid a living allowance of less than $8,000 per year but can receive up to $4,725 to help finance a college education or repay student loans.
"No one is in it for the money," said 20-year-old Vanessa Sherlock, who is in her second one-year tour as an AmeriCorps volunteer. "You see so much need. It makes you grow both inside and outside."
At yesterday's event -- held in Ritchie Coliseum and attended by more than 1,500 students, faculty, AmeriCorps volunteers and guests -- Clinton said he wants to recruit 50,000 participants in 1999 and hopes 100,000 are volunteering annually by 2003.
He also said he wants Congress to provide funds so high school-age Americans can volunteer part time during school and full time during the summer.
College Park seemed an appropriate setting for his pleas. In 1993, during a forum at his last visit here, Clinton listened to students describe participation in the "Summer of Service," a trial run involving 1,500 students that grew into AmeriCorps. Maryland is also the only state that requires community service as part of a public high school education.
With the Senate debating his fate a few miles away, the president smiled, leaned back nonchalantly in his chair and clasped his hands in his lap as he listened intently to other speakers.
But his own remarks were decidedly somber, lacking the campaign-style emotion that electrified his speeches in Buffalo, N.Y., and Norristown, Pa., the day after his State of the Union address last month.
"I want to challenge, again, the young people beyond this room to dedicate a year or two of their lives to a cause larger than yourselves," Clinton said. "It may be your best chance to change the lives of others for the better, and to enrich your own life in the process."
His tone seemed to resonate with some listeners. "He showed he was really serious about this," said Kisha Logan, 19, a University of Maryland sophomore from Silver Spring who majors in education. "I'm thinking about applying."
Others had hoped for a more spirited performance. "It was solemn," said freshman Raymond Bryson of Fort Meade. "I thought he'd be more upbeat. He was talking to adults and not to students."
While Congress increased funding for AmeriCorps the past two years, there has been serious debate -- especially in the House -- about eliminating it. Much of the criticism resulted from investigations by a House subcommittee that alleged that the Corporation for National Service, AmeriCorps' parent agency, was mishandling its money and spending as much as $26,000 per volunteer.
"It's not a well-run organization," said Derrick Max, who was the lead subcommittee investigator and is now director of government affairs at the Cato Institute. He said Americans will engage in community service on their own without government help.
"I don't like to be coerced into doing a good thing," he said.
AmeriCorps spokeswoman Anne Bushman said the program has fulfilled a promise made to Congress in 1996 to reduce the per-volunteer cost by $1,000 each year. "The fact that they've increased funding the last two years speaks for itself," she said.
In his fiscal year 2000 budget, Clinton has requested $585 million for AmeriCorps, an increase of $113 million.
Yesterday's rally did have a few rollicking moments -- each time the nationally ranked Terrapins basketball team was mentioned.
State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller gave Clinton a Terrapins jersey. "I could see it in his eyes that he'll be wearing it [last night] as we beat N.C. State," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening in his remarks.
Sun staff writer Candus Thomson contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/11/99