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Milton spreads the service message to a national audience
STANFORD -- If Catherine Milton has her way, by the year 2000 every American school child will have spent time feeding the hungry, comforting the elderly or nurturing the environment.
Milton already has helped show what can be done at the college level. As the founder and director of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford, she helped to increase the percentage of Stanford students involved in service activities from 30 percent to 70 percent in the past five years.
As a key organizer of Campus Compact - a coalition of colleges dedicated to fostering service among their students - she helped to spread that message to 280 colleges and universities nationally.
Now, in a $73-million federal effort, she's trying to promote public service on an even larger scale.
"What we are doing is trying to help support a national movement of community service, particularly among young people," Milton said.
"Having had that experience at Stanford, and seeing it work in the higher education community nationwide, I feel that there's tremendous potential to have that happen in a much broader way."
Since October 1991, Milton has been on leave from her job at Stanford to serve as the first executive director of the new Commission on National and Community Service in Washington, D.C.
The commission, a result of the National and Community Service Act of 1990, is charged with providing program funds, training and technical assistance to states and communities to develop and expand public service opportunities for all citizens, regardless of age, income or ability.
Sens. Edward Kennedy, Sam Nunn and Barbara Mikulski were among the key supporters of the bill, which represents the first time substantial public money has been devoted to such an effort.
Ways to contribute
Milton's assignment during the past six months has been to build the commission from the ground up: hiring staff, writing regulations and preparing the application forms that will help the commission disburse $73 million in grants to states, colleges and Native American tribes by the summer of 1992.
She reports to a 21-member board, appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate, that includes college presidents, former governors, a schoolteacher, a minister and young people who have founded their own community service programs. The board is chaired by former congressman Pete McCloskey.
"Basically what this is all about is saying that the country is not in good condition at this point, and that we can't depend on government alone to help us," Milton said.
"It's really going to depend on the actions of all of us as citizens to help out. I feel that by working with young people, we can begin to build an ethic into everyone's lives; that is, if they really aren't part of the solution, they are part of the problem. We really have to find ways that we all can contribute."
Under Milton's direction, the commission will allocate funds to grantees in four major categories:
The commission also may fund projects for rural youth, employer-based retiree volunteer programs, governors' innovative service programs, a Peace Corps/VISTA training program and a program that places Foster Grandparent programs in Head Start centers.
Milton is particularly excited about the funds to promote "service-learning" among kindergarten through 12th graders. She already has had some experience in the area - together with Megan Swezey of the Haas Center, she helped to found a youth community service program in Palo Alto, Calif.
Now in its second year, the program involves several hundred schoolchildren in the Palo Alto Unified School District, who learn about things like pollution and poverty, then go on to clean up parks, run canned food drives and develop schoolwide recycling programs.
"This has tremendous potential for the whole education reform movement," Milton said. "When children see that what they're working on is going to be useful, they're motivated to learn more."
Milton also is eager to see the results of the adult service programs to be tested by states and Indian tribes.
If successful, they could provide a model for a major national public service program. (Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton has proposed providing college loans in exchange for service in teaching, police or child care, among other things.)
"I personally tend to be conservative on these kinds of large-scale programs," Milton said. "Sometimes I feel as if I should have a motto hanging above my door: 'Do No Harm.'
"If we send students out into the community, we want to make sure we're not sending them into a situation that they're not prepared for, or to a community that isn't prepared to receive them. Especially when you have young people going out to tutor or deal with human beings, there's a tremendous potential for doing harm. So you've got to be very careful.
"That's why I feel very strongly that the approach that the commission is taking is the right one. Through this, we will learn what does work, what does not work and what the problems are.
"Only then - if it proves really valuable both to the participants and the community - can we say 'yes, this is something that is worth putting the taxpayers] money into.' "
Launching the commission has involved many 16-hour workdays for Milton, who tries to get back to her Stanford campus home every weekend.
Her sons - Raphael, 15, and Luke, 13 - are cared for during the week by husband Tom McBride, director of Stanford's Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
"It's been a great chance for the three men in the family to get closer," Milton said. "I think they've enjoyed having many more takeout pizzas than I would have allowed."
In addition to catching up with her family, Milton tries to spend some time each weekend touching base with students and staff at the Haas Center in Owen House.
Under the acting directorship of Tim Stanton, the center has weathered a 17 percent budget cut this year, which involved the loss of some support staff and funding for the annual student- organized You Can Make a Difference conference.
Still, Milton is more than optimistic about the future of public service at Stanford.
"I think were were fortunate that so much of the work in public service at Stanford was accomplished before serious budget problems," she said. "Through the Haas gift, we were able to build an endowment that gave us some stability for the core expenses."
Groundbreaking for a new $2.3 million public service building is just about to get under way (see box), and faculty involvement in the center's activities is at an all-time high: More and more students are doing public service internships and getting academic credit for their work on reports, newsletters and funding proposals.
Milton is most proud, though, of the students who have passed through the doors of the Haas Center and emerged the better for it.
"I can name literally hundreds of students whose lives have been transformed by that experience," she said. "They would come in by accident, or a friend would drag them in. Then they'd get one experience in serving others, and that one experience would lead to another, and then several years later they would say, 'This was the one event that changed my life.' "
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