When I was in high school in the late 1960s, it was common for people my age and a little older to debate whether to go to college or join the Peace Corps. Both paths were about learning, but one also was about serving. For those who wanted to learn and serve, and who liked the idea of living in a far-off place, the Peace Corps was an exciting option.
The organization was young then, not even 10 years old. It grew out of a comment made by then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to University of Michigan students on Oct. 14, 1960.
In a middle-of-the-night speech to 10,000 enthusiastic collegians, Kennedy asked how many of them would be willing to contribute to the cause of world peace by volunteering to serve in a Third World country.
On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy signed an order establishing the Peace Corps, and Americans young and not so young stepped forward to give a couple of years of their lives to help people in struggling nations. More than 195,000 people have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 139 countries since then.
Now, another young president is sounding the call to service. Barack Obama and his family spent the day before his inauguration doing volunteer jobs around the Washington, D.C., area, on what he called a "national day of service."
Obama has urged people of all ages to look beyond themselves and their own concerns to help others. Whereas Kennedy wanted Americans to help people of other countries, Obama advocates a return to the ethic of community service here at home, and not just for young people, but for everyone.
It is a tall order for Americans, who have become experts at cocooning in their homes, content with their televisions and computers, discarding the idea of mingling with people who are different, not even knowing their neighbors. Sociologists and psychologists say that is one reason why we have found it so easy to turn on one another.
Service to our own countrymen, our own communities, is needed more now than perhaps at any time since the Great Depression. There is great suffering in our land. There are enormous needs. Government doesn't have the revenue to help everyone, and we should not expect it to do so. We're Americans. We can help ourselves.
Where to begin?
Perhaps you have heard of an organization in your community that does good work. You can call or go to its Web site to check out volunteer opportunities. Even if your time is limited, there is likely something you can do.
If you don't know of such an organization, there is probably a school near your home. Schools need lots of volunteers to mentor students, do clerical tasks, tutor, or work with school-based organizations such as music groups or athletic teams.
If you are a churchgoer, does your church have outreach programs like a clothing closet, a food pantry, a volunteer corps or a satellite ministry in a needy neighborhood? If it doesn't, you can help start one.
Check your daily newspaper, where organizations' appeals for volunteers appear frequently. I checked the Times on a recent Saturday and found a whole list. For example, Pinellas County's guardian ad litem program needs volunteers to act as the courtroom voice of children who have been taken from their parents because of abuse or neglect. Guardians also are needed for the elderly; St. Petersburg College is planning a training program for those interested. Hospice needs people willing to be companions for the sick. The Florida Department of Elder Affairs needs ombudsmen for people living in long-term-care facilities.
Don't assume that you don't have time to volunteer. Many organizations are so desperate for help that they will tailor volunteer hours to your schedule, skills and interests. There may even be volunteer work such as telephoning that you can do from home if you lack transportation or are disabled. If the first place you call isn't a good fit for you, try another.
When you think about it, what Obama is asking isn't such a big deal. He's just asking us to help one another.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the north Pinellas editions of the Times.