A 9/11 Anniversary Call for Public Service

This September 11, some 2,500 family members of those who perished on that tragic day eight years ago -- first responders, recovery workers, volunteers, military personnel and leaders of the national community service movement -- will gather in New York to commemorate the occasion as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. The day was established as such by the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which was passed earlier this year by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and which will greatly expand the number of citizens engaged in national service endeavors.

I can't imagine a more appropriate manner in which to observe this solemn anniversary and honor the memory of Sen. Kennedy, while at the same time demonstrating both our individual and collective resolve and commitment to a strong, vital future than through service. Indeed, one of the most effective vehicles for tackling the vexing issues confronting our city and nation is public service. We, as citizens, have an unprecedented opportunity -- and the capacity -- to work on something larger than ourselves, to rebuild our communities and neighborhoods and meet the challenges ahead.

To do so, to have New York stand at the forefront among cities large and small in volunteer engagement and empowerment, Mayor Bloomberg launched NYC Service earlier this year. This comprehensive program comprises more than 40 initiatives, focusing on areas as diverse as health, education, safety-net services, the environment, and emergency preparedness. The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Foundation are proud and privileged to support one particular component, the NYC Civic Corps, which is marshalling the experience and expertise of more than 2000 fulltime volunteers to build capacity at dozens of non-profit and public agencies in the five boroughs. Especially in these challenging economic times, non-profits are being hit hard by decreases in both donations and manpower hours.

Indeed, a national report issued last week found that volunteerism and civic engagement have declined as the recession drags on. People out of work or looking for work and those who have to work harder to make ends meet, have less time to help others and get involved. It is our conviction that making it easier for volunteers to serve, helping non-profits engage volunteers in solving real problems and valuing service as a way to build marketable skills and enhance a resume will reverse the decline in the number of city residents and all Americans who volunteer.

In fact, history shows that citizens mobilize to take action when the cause is right, when the opportunity to engage doesn't conflict with other obligations, and when volunteer opportunities make good use of skills, interests and time. And service has a profoundly positive impact on civic engagement, educational achievement, and employment. A seminal report on VISTA, which was established in 1964 and continues today as part of the AmeriCorps network of national service programs, found that VISTA members were more likely to pursue and complete their college degrees, hold full-time jobs, and maintain a higher income profile than the study's comparison group.

But if no other tangible reason was needed to put public service high on the Mayor's - and the country's - agenda, consider this: Public service contributes billions of dollars to the economy. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, some 2.4 million city residents volunteered nearly 362 million hours in 2008, contributing an estimated $6.6 billion to the economy. Nationally, nearly 62 million people performed public service in 2008, totaling eight billion hours valued at approximately $162 billion.

The need for increased public service is obvious and immediate. Mayor Bloomberg, and President Obama, through their clarion calls, have set the stage for more New Yorkers and more Americans to respond. Now it is up to us not to let the call go unanswered. Now it is up to us to maximize what Mayor Bloomberg called our greatest asset: "The love that all of us have for this city, and our willingness to put it to work" now, when the city needs us most.

Laurie M. Tisch is president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, which works to increase access and opportunity for all New Yorkers by firing imagination, sparking opportunity and strengthening community.