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Volunteers for Prosperity

As President Barack Obama and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) debate whether Americans should be “citizens of the world,— the time and talents of Americans are urgently needed abroad to continue to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other issues in the developing world.This month, Congress will consider funding Volunteers for Prosperity, a program launched in 2003 and recently authorized in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act that would deploy tens of thousands of skilled Americans throughout the developing world to tackle urgent challenges at low cost to government. [IMGCAP(1)]The work of Americans through Volunteers for Prosperity makes a big difference in the communities that they serve and adds meaning to the volunteers’ own lives. Two health care professionals who had worked in HIV/AIDS clinics in Harlem and the Bronx took their skills to the rural mountains of Lesotho, where they helped set up systems for HIV/AIDS testing, antiretroviral treatment and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. Upon their return, the couple said, “the courage and spirit to face HIV were inspiring. Huge pieces of our hearts remain in Semonkong.— A retired, married couple from Michigan — both successful business professionals — traveled to Kenya to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs. Their work enabled small Kenyan businesses to receive capital through “micro— loans, and they view their work as an important step toward the “ultimate goal— of reducing poverty in Kenya.President John F. Kennedy said his Peace Corps would fulfill its promise when 100,000 American volunteers served abroad every year. If that had happened, more than 2 million Americans would have served by now. Today, the Peace Corps deploys about 7,876 volunteers in 76 countries, a small fraction of Kennedy’s goal. Doubling the Peace Corps is a bipartisan issue, embraced by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Congress should enable a 21st-century Peace Corps to meet that goal.But to fulfill JFK’s dream, we also need Volunteers for Prosperity, which last year alone helped mobilize 43,000 skilled Americans to work in the poorest parts of the world on development priorities of the Congress — HIV/AIDS, malaria, poverty, illiteracy and more. It engages high-skilled volunteers for shorter-term service than the Peace Corps’ two-year minimum.The investment is small — $10 million — and the return is high, given that new volunteers who receive a small grant to defray travel and living costs are deployed through an existing network of 300 nonprofit organizations with projects in place to use their talents wisely. Volunteers only qualify for financial support after they have been able to raise at least an equal amount of funds from family, friends and colleagues. This matching requirement has been key to the early success of Volunteers for Prosperity.The compassion of Americans knows no boundaries. Enabling more Americans like those serving in Lesotho and Kenya to use their skills and experience in the developing world will help tackle problems, transform lives and lead to a more informed U.S. foreign policy.Former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) was an organizer of the Peace Corps. John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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