WASHINGTON — Calling on Americans to volunteer, President Barack Obama signed a $5.7 billion national service bill Tuesday that triples the size of the AmeriCorps service program over the next eight years and expands ways for students to earn money for college.
"What this legislation does, then, is to help harness this patriotism and connect deeds to needs," said Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago.
"It creates opportunities to serve for students, seniors and everyone in between," he said. "And it is just the beginning of a sustained, collaborative and focused effort to involve our greatest resource — our citizens — in the work of remaking this nation."
Joining Obama was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who has been battling brain cancer. Kennedy championed the legislation with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the bill was named in honor of the Massachusetts Democrat.
Kennedy told the audience that included former President Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former first lady Rosalyn Carter that Obama's efforts echoed those of his late brother, President John F. Kennedy.
"Today, another young president has challenged another generation to give back to their nation," Kennedy said, citing his brother's advocacy for the Peace Corps.
The service law expands ways for students and seniors to earn money for college through their volunteer work. It aims to foster and fulfill people's desire to make a difference, such as by mentoring children, cleaning up parks or buildings and weatherizing homes for the poor.
"I'm asking you to help change history's course, put your shoulder up against the wheel," Obama said. "And if you do, I promise you your life will be richer, our country will be stronger, and someday, years from now, you may remember it as the moment when your own story and the American story converged, when they came together, and we met the challenges of our new century."
Bolstering voluntary public service programs has been a priority of Obama, who credits his work as a community organizer in his early 20s for giving him direction in life. The president cited his work in Chicago as an example of how one person can make a difference.
"All that's required on your part is a willingness to make a difference," Obama said. "And that is, after all, the beauty of service: Anybody can do it."
Obama visited the SEED School of Washington, a public boarding school that serves inner-city students facing problems in both the classroom and at home, for the signing ceremony.
Afterward, Obama and Michelle Obama joined Clinton to plant trees at a national park site along the Anacostia River in northeast Washington. At the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Obama rolled up his sleeves with volunteers from the Student Conservation Association and local public high schools.
"Somebody forgot my boots," Obama joked to the students.
Obama on Tuesday also nominated Nike Inc. Vice President Maria Eitel to lead the federal agency that oversees the country's national service programs.
Eitel, who's also president of the Nike Foundation, would have to be confirmed by the Senate to become CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Congress passed the bill last month with largely bipartisan support and Obama is seeking $1.1 billion to fund it next year. Some Republicans complain it is too costly and is an unnecessary intrusion by government into something Americans already do eagerly and in great numbers — helping their neighbors and communities.
The legislation provides for gradually increasing the size of the Clinton-era AmeriCorps to 250,000 enrollees from its current 75,000. It outlines five broad categories where people can direct their service: helping the poor, improving education, encouraging energy efficiency, strengthening access to health care and assisting veterans.
AmeriCorps offers a range of volunteer opportunities including housing construction, youth outreach, disaster response and caring for the elderly. Most receive an annual stipend of slightly less than $12,000 for working 10 months to a year.
AmeriCorps has seen a recent surge in applications, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the program.
In March, the organization received 17,038 online AmeriCorps applications, nearly double those received in the previous month and nearly triple the 6,770 received last March.
Alan Solomont, who chairs AmeriCorps' board, said former President John F. Kennedy's call to service inspired more people to help others than just those who joined the Peace Corps. He said this national service legislation could produce the same effect.
"It is not unlike the moment in 1960 when President Kennedy asked Americans, you know, to serve, but it is certainly going to engage millions more today," Solomont said in a conference call arranged by the White House.
The bill also ties volunteer work to money for college.
People 55 and older could earn $1,000 education awards by getting involved in public service. Those awards can be transferred to a child, grandchild or even someone they mentored.
Students from sixth grade through senior year of high school could earn a $500 education award for helping in their neighborhoods during a new summer program.