When Shirley Cherry was helping out at Guilford Elementary School a couple of years ago, a boy spoke rudely to her, and his teacher made him write an apology. But the note was poorly written, full of grammatical errors and bad punctuation. "I can't accept this," Ms. Cherry told the boy, who was about 10. "But if you'd like me to help show you how to write this letter, I'd be happy to." By the time they were done, the boy, all smiles, had told the 70-year-old retiree that he hoped she would return to his class the next day.
Finding more people who, like Ms. Cherry, are willing to invest their time and talents in bettering their neighborhoods is a key goal of the timely, bipartisan Serve America Act. The first major legislation in 15 years designed to bolster volunteerism and national service, it would funnel resources to volunteer centers across the country; expand service learning opportunities for youths; create a series of "corps" focused on health, the environment and other specific areas; and create new opportunities for older Americans to volunteer.
Baltimore seniors are showing the way. Every day during the school year, dozens of retirees like Ms. Cherry are put to work through Experience Corps, which is run by the Greater Homewood Community Corp. The program, started nine years ago in six North Baltimore schools, now places teams in 19 schools around the city, where they commit to at least 15 hours a week helping with tasks from tutoring to hand-holding.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University have found that schools with Experience Corps volunteers have higher test scores and lower suspension rates than comparable schools. According to Sylvia McGill of the Greater Homewood group, the benefits flow both ways. Older residents have a chance to "give back" to their communities, socialize with fellow seniors, even get some exercise. A small yearly stipend ensures that the program is not limited to those who can afford to donate their time.
As the success of Experience Corps shows, volunteerism is highly beneficial, especially in places like Baltimore where professional services alone can never meet the city's pressing needs. Organizations such as Teach for America and City Year have demonstrated that legions of Americans will commit to such public-spirited activities; they just need the kind of framework that the Serve America Act provides. While previous efforts have attracted mostly young people, this bill seeks to fully integrate older Americans into national service. It requires that at least 10 percent of the funds it distributes go to programs that engage people age 50 and above, and the wave of aging baby boomers should produce millions of potential recruits.
There's little doubt that the legislation's cost - $5 billion over five years, with many times that amount expected to be leveraged from the private sector - will pay dividends in reduced crime, improved health, better educational outcomes and a higher quality of life for volunteers and recipients alike. Even in a tough economic climate, it's a worthy effort that deserves support when it comes up for a vote next year.