And I do believe

There's a dream for everyone

This is our country

— John Mellencamp



When Gary Hart ran for president in 1984, he promoted the idea that young Americans should serve in the military or in a volunteer service such as Vista or the Peace Corps.

With many of our young people in a war zone, it is a good time to revisit the idea. There is a disconnect between people serving their country in the military and the people who chose not to volunteer.

We have people putting their lives on the line for our country. However, a greater number has never done any kind of public service or volunteer work.

The charge of President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do your country” has fallen on deaf ears.

That needs to get turned around. Public service is not just good for the public. It is good for the people performing the service.

If you look what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation,” those people who experienced World War II, they lived the collective experience of doing something for their country. Almost every American participated or sacrificed to help the war effort.

It was a battle of good versus evil and the United States was on the side of good.

That spirit of public service, self-sacrifice and teamwork drove other decisions throughout their lives.

That spirit of volunteerism inspired World War II war hero President Kennedy to create the Peace Corps.

Bill Clinton was inspired by President Kennedy’s vision of public serve and created AmeriCorps.

My daughter, Gena Lewis, and son-in-law, Clay Bigler, did two years of AmeriCorps service. It was a life-changing experience for both.

They spent one year in Kentucky helping poor people and in the second year, made a dramatic move to Northern Vermont. Gena helped to run a spouse and sexual abuse shelter and Clay designed and implemented a computer network for a rural public school system.

In one year, they made a huge impact on the small town they lived in. It made a bigger impact on how Gena and Clay looked at life.

Both are now high-ranking executives in the financial services industry, but the skill sets they acquired advanced them in their private sector careers.

One decade after their AmeriCorps service, both value the concept of giving back to society. Just like those people of the “greatest generation” did.

Ten years from now, I am sure that the veterans of the war in Iraq will be more active in public service than those who did not serve. Once a person has committed to helping their country, it is difficult to get them to stop.

We need to encourage young people to consider programs such as AmeriCorps. I served on the advisory board for Eastern Kentucky University’s AmeriCorps program for several years. I saw how those young people contributed to their communities and how they grew as people.

I want other young people to have that same experience.

I think Gary Hart went too far in wanting to public service be mandatory. I don’t want to force someone to join the Army or be part of a volunteer service. The programs and incentives need to be there so people do it on their own.

There also needs to be a mindset of public service instilled in young people. My father used to recite the phrase from Kennedy’s inaugural speech often. Many of us who grew up in the shadow of Kennedy’s legacy felt that affinity toward volunteerism.

We live in a world where volunteerism seems passé. Technology and societal changes mean that we are more and more disconnected from our neighbors. Programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps let young people know that it is a privilege to grow up in the United States of America and that they should be expected to pay for the privilege.

They’ll find that in paying back their debt, they will grow and be the overall benefactors.

Like John Mellencamp sings in his great song, I too believe there is a dream for everyone.

Programs such as AmeriCorps help young people recognize that the dream starts by helping others.

Don McNay is the author of “The Unbridled World of Ernie Fletcher” and chairman of the board for McNay Settlement Group. You can write to him at don@donmcnay.com or read other things he has written at www.donmcnay.com. His award-winning column is syndicated on the CNHI News Service.

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