How Can I Help?

Americans engaged in volunteer work say the surge of civic-mindedness after Sept. 11 has weakened, and they hope President Bush's State of the Union appeal will rekindle enthusiasm for helping others.

``Lots of people report an ebbing,'' said Leslie Lenkowsky, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service. ``That's why the speech was so important.''

On Tuesday night, Bush urged every American to commit at least two years over the rest of their lives to the service of their neighbors and the nation. ``What the president did was ask people to serve,'' said Lenkowsky, whose federal agency runs the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs. ``You have to ask somebody, if you want to get them to serve.''

Near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York, Nikki Rospond watched Bush on television. She was impressed but, like volunteers elsewhere, somewhat skeptical that his vision will be fully realized. ``Especially in New York... so much emphasis has been placed on helping the victims of Sept. 11 that a lot of other charities have suffered,'' Rospond said. ``I'm glad he touched on it.''

Rospond, 33, watched the speech working as a volunteer at Nino's, a restaurant that has served free food and drinks to ground zero workers since Sept. 12. She said civic-mindedness remains strong in New York, but guessed that it was fading elsewhere. ``I have a feeling the momentum has somewhat stopped because it's not on the news every day ... they're not here interacting with people who were affected,'' she said. ``It would be great to have everybody volunteer, but I think (Bush) is living in a fantasy world if he thinks he can make that happen.''

Dane Smith, president of the National Peace Corps Association, was delighted that Bush proposed doubling the Peace Corps over the next five years. The corps now has 7,000 volunteers in the field, compared to a peak of 15,000 in 1966. Smith, whose association represents former Peace Corps volunteers, said the corps could play a valuable role in strengthening America's ties with the Islamic world.

Carl Erikson, spokesman for Volunteers of America, said Bush's appeal was timely because of national economic problems. ``We've seen a rise in the number of working homeless families _ adults with children and a full-time job, but who can't afford housing,'' Erikson said. ``It would be wonderful if we saw a strong rise in community awareness and volunteerism.''

Compeer of Suburban Philadelphia, an organization that matches volunteers to people with mental illness, now has 113 volunteers but needs 100 more, said program director Jessica Hickman Schneider. ``If President Bush is encouraging us to share our time, that can only benefit tiny grass-roots organizations like us,'' said Schneider.

Estela Soza Garza, who works with poor families along the Mexican border in Bush's home state of Texas, said appeals for good citizenship don't alter the fact that the paramount need for many families is good jobs.

But J.B. Bird, who works at McCombs School of Business School in Austin, said Bush's speech was inspiring. ``I thought he had a realistic goal,'' Bird said. ``Two years is good _ you can do it in chunks, you can do it over your whole life. You can do it when you get out of college, when you retire ... I thought he gave a good challenge.''

Lenkowsky said the speech reminded him of the extensive community service performed by the so-called Greatest Generation during World War II. Bush's appeal ``gives Americans an opportunity to express the sentiments that we clearly do have,'' Lenkowsky said. ``We will have a new Greatest Generation.''