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With jobs scarce, volunteering on the rise

Volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America say the dire economy and President Barack Obama's call for service have led to a major increase in applications.
Meltdown Volunteers
Meghan McCloskey, 23, has applied for the Peace Corps and is hoping to be stationed in Africa.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Meghan McCloskey heard the call to service when she was in college, applying to the Peace Corps during her senior year. That call only got louder as she realized her shrinking job options in the faltering economy.

"Just having some sort of security for two years and not going through the job application process every two months and internships until someone wants to pay you is good," said McCloskey, 23, an administrative assistant who completed the Peace Corps application process and is awaiting her country placement. "It's a good way to gain a lot of experience in a short amount of time and after the job I have now, I don't know if I could find another job in the economy."

Volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America say the floundering economy and President Barack Obama's call for service have led to a major increase in applications.

Teach for America received a record 14,000 applications by November, an almost 50 percent increase over the previous year. And Peace Corps applications rose 16 percent from fiscal year 2007 to 2008, with a big spike registered around the time of Obama's inauguration.

Obama advocates service
As a former community organizer, Obama advocated public service throughout his campaign and encouraged Americans to spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteering. Obama's administration also has several initiatives promoting service, including expanding the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

When applying to Peace Corps, most college graduates speak first about their desire to serve. But they also learn a foreign language and gain valuable international experience that can further their future careers, organization spokeswoman Laura Lartigue said.

"They come out on the other end with really good skills that make them competitive in the job market," she said.

Many of this year's applicants got a taste of volunteering while in school, making the thought of spending more than two years serving abroad a less daunting, Lartigue said.

Michael Brown, CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit City Year in Boston, said it's not just the sour economy and lack of jobs that's contributed to the jump in volunteerism. His organization, which places young adults as tutors and mentors for schoolchildren for a year, has seen applications jump from about 500 to almost 1,600 year-on-year.

"It's not just a matter of needing employment, which I think is still important, but there's something in a declining economy that clarifies all our values," Brown said. "Young folks are saying, `I'm needed more than ever because I'm needed in this economy. Now is the time I should go do this.'"

More consider teaching
Teach for America recruits heavily at college campuses. Now with banks and investment firms scaling back hiring, more students are considering teaching for two years, spokeswoman Amy Rabinowitz said.

"This year is tough for everybody," Rabinowitz said. "We haven't seen an environment like this in 30 years, but we aggressively go after folks we think of as the most talented people and look for those types of people to be in the classroom. That's what makes us optimistic for the year."

Bowdoin College senior Ashley Fischer applied to Teach for America at its first deadline but also weighed taking a consulting job. When she saw firms weren't hiring, it only solidified her decision to teach for two years.

Fischer will teach in a Newark, N.J., bilingual classroom next year.

"I wonder if I had gotten a consulting job, I would have been in a difficult position having to choose," said the New York City native, who has been a tutor and counselor at a special needs camp. "It was a big whirlwind of circular emotions, but now I'm really excited."

McCloskey, who thinks she might be placed in sub-Saharan Africa because of her French language skills, said serving those in need abroad is still at the root of her choice.

"I want to experience life without the luxuries you take for granted as Americans and live closer to earth and see what it's like to rely on the earth every day for your existence," McCloskey said. "Being born in America, specifically, you just don't realize the rest of world lives differently."