NEW YORK – Ten U.S. cities are recruiting volunteers to help with local problems such as flood recovery and childhood obesity as part of a nationwide emphasis on service led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg founded a volunteer corps in his city last year in response to President Barack Obama's call for more Americans to do service work. He then launched a coalition of cities focused on service, and it now has more than 100 member cities.
Earlier this year, the billionaire mayor's philanthropic foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation gave grants to 20 cities to hire chief service officers and start their own service efforts.
Ten of those cities are launching their programs this month, with a range of initiatives geared toward solving local issues. The cities are Philadelphia; Detroit; Seattle; Chicago; Los Angeles; Nashville, Tenn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Savannah, Ga.; Omaha, Neb.; and Newark, N.J.
The mayor said volunteers are especially crucial at a time when municipalities everywhere are having to trim spending and slash services.
"Faced with continued economic challenges, many mayors are working to take advantage of every available resource — including the time and energy of public-spirited residents — to solve local challenges," Bloomberg said Wednesday during an appearance in Newark with Mayor Cory Booker to announce that city's program and discuss how the participating cities have tailored their volunteer efforts to their own needs.
Under New York's Cities of Service program, volunteers have accomplished a variety of goals: They have trained 56,000 people in CPR, helped deliver 160,000 flu vaccinations and led more than 200 free fitness classes serving 7,700 people in neighborhoods with high obesity levels.
Participants said the point is not to amass huge numbers of volunteers in every city but rather to recruit and use volunteers effectively and efficiently to address existing problems.
"Mayors play a critical role at the local level," Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said in an interview. "Bloomberg said, 'OK, we're going to create Cities of Service and have mayors be leaders around the country in terms of making service opportunities real.'"
Sacramento's program concentrates on public safety, education, homelessness and the environment. One initiative trains volunteers in emergency preparedness; another will use volunteers to expand an existing effort that uses houses of worship as emergency homeless shelters.
In Newark, Booker is focusing on education and health. Under one initiative to combat childhood obesity, 200 volunteers will be recruited to staff evening clinics that will provide free organized physical activities for 2,000 children.
The mayor of Nashville, which suffered substantial flooding earlier this year, is planning several initiatives that target flood recovery. One program envisions volunteers planting trees and rain gardens in flood-damaged areas to help absorb water and prevent erosion. Another assigns volunteers to educate homeowners on how to incorporate energy efficient upgrades into their rebuilding projects.
Michelle Nunn, co-founder of HandsOn Network, the nation's largest volunteer network, said the idea of plugging volunteers directly into local city government problems is a new approach to volunteerism.
"A lot of times, volunteering is seen as building capacity for nonprofits," Nunn said, "but this is a movement to say, 'This is how we can help solve problems around education, the environment and specific challenges our community is facing.'"
All the initiatives include metrics that will allow officials to measure results.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is planning one program that will train volunteers to serve as graduation coaches who will help guide teenagers through high school and into college and careers. The program is intended to help reach Nutter's goal of raising the rate at which high school students graduate within six years from 63 percent now to 80 percent by 2015.