The Senate approved a bill yesterday — the Senator Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act — that promises to benefit working families and our communities by enlisting volunteers focused on education, clean energy, health care and veterans. 

The bill now goes to the House, which approved a different version last week. Here’s from an article in The New York Times:

The legislation, which had broad bipartisan support, would expand the ranks of AmeriCorps, which was created by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to bring federal volunteer programs under a single umbrella.

In addition to adding positions to AmeriCorps, the bill would create four new service corps. The expansion would cost about $6 billion over five years. The bill would raise the education stipend paid to volunteers to $5,350, the same amount as a Pell Grant college scholarship.

The more than tripling of the number of federal service positions, at a time when the recession is expected to vastly increase the demand for volunteer work among college graduates, amounts to the boldest expansion of service opportunities since President John F. Kennedy called for a national service corps in 1963.

The bill also seeks to encourage volunteer work among retirees and would offer them a $1,000 educational award that they could transfer to a child or grandchild. 

Senators Kennedy and Orrin Hatch helped put this call for national service into perspective in an article they wrote for Time, “21 Ways to Serve America.”

We want to make it feasible for many to devote a year or more to service. We’ve already seen lives change as Americans give their time and talents to service organizations. But we know much more could be done. It’s time to encourage many more Americans to roll up their sleeves and volunteer in communities at home and abroad. Americans across the nation are beginning to answer this call, devoting one year or more to volunteer service and, in the process, changing the world.

They are weatherizing homes and increasing energy conservation. They are improving health care in low-income communities. They are enabling people throughout the world to have cleaner water and lifesaving vaccines. They are helping communities rebuild after the devastation of hurricanes and floods. Some of the most remarkable efforts are taking place in our schools. Citizen Schools enables people to spend time leading after-school programs to extend the school day, so students have more time to learn and can interact with professionals who will help them connect their learning to a future profession. City Year brings talented, motivated young AmeriCorps members into schools to tutor and mentor at-risk students and show them that someone cares. There are other examples but not nearly enough. It’s time to do more.

For those who can’t give a year to service, we should create incentives for part-time or short-term service in their communities. We should support states and communities and social entrepreneurs who are developing innovative approaches to help those in need.

And for those who can give a year or more, the time has come to help them do so. The challenges we face are too great. We’ve already waited too long to tap their amazing energy, ingenuity and commitment.

Our policy paper — “Strengthening America’s Economic Competitiveness: Public Policy Strategies to Improve Workforce Readiness” — examines the need to promote community service and service learning. It also spotlights the work of partner company Goldman Sachs and Citizen Schools.