I'm at the dinner table with volunteers in the AmeriCorps. You may recall that George W. Bush has opened a lively spat in the GOP between "values conservatives" and "anti-government conservatives." Trying to provide focus to our mood of unity, the president proposed expanding AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. Few things better typify old bedrock values of duty and service.
But the government bashers won't stand for it. Led by the likes of GOP House leader Dick Armey of Texas who argued that the charitable spirit is incompatible with government subsidies and financing they are out to block the path. I guess they fear nothing like the possibility that government success will prove them wrong.
What do the women and men of AmeriCorps have to say to Armey and his bunch?
Stephanie Wisniewski: "How can you be for taking care of our country if you're not for taking care of our community?"
Stephanie grew up with the working poor in suburban Hanover Park, Ill. Her mom could fix anything, a fact that shaped Stephanie's aspirations.
Working three jobs, she put herself through college and has a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin. But before she seeks a career in film, she had a childhood dream: to build houses for the working poor.
"I've waited for this since I was a kid," she beams, fresh from a house construction site with a grimy face, dirty T-shirt and a smile of someone who invested sweat equity into her own satisfaction. "As far as we know, we only live once, so we might as well do something that fills you up."
At 26, Stephanie is an AmeriCorps volunteer for Habitat for Humanity in a program called Direct, the hammer-and-nails end of things. Her one-year contract pays her less than the minimum wage as a gofer, team leader, troubleshooter and rally-the-troops energizer.
She likes it so much that she is about to sign up for another year; time for a career later.
Adrianna Hosford: " If we didn't have programs like AmeriCorps, we'd see a lot more problems in our society. I think the people in opposition are those who have never volunteered."
Adrianna grew up well-to-do in Huntington Beach, Calif. Her family is conservative but community-minded. She earned a bachelor's degree from Chapman University, working as an educational aide at a blind children's learning center. She is bound for graduate school and wanted to add some more experience to her resume. She could have taken a salaried job with a top-notch PR firm. Instead, she enrolled for a year as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer for less than minimum wage. She is designing a communications and special events program for Habitat.
"For me, I don't feel particularly like it's a choice. This has been my breeding," she says. "If you have the gift for helping people, it's sort of your responsibility to use it."
Bob Wright says of Armey: "He's selfish and narrow-minded."
Bob is 75 and ran his own engineering and construction business for 20 years out of Park City, Utah. "Why volunteer? I didn't want to retire and just do nothing. I don't think there is any real benefit to living hedonistically."
Wright and his wife were headed for the Peace Corps when they learned of the alternative of domestic service through AmeriCorps. They moved to Long Beach, Calif., where he is the volunteer property acquisitions coordinator for Habitat. His wife works for the public library.
Today, there are 50,000 AmeriCorps volunteers like these providing person-power, expertise and energy to thousands of programs, some private and others governmental.
Armey thinks the idea is "obnoxious." On his congressional Web site, this leading conservative theorist warns: "While liberals have been extraordinarily successful at convincing the public of their higher motives, these higher motives are usually used to conceal their own greed."
So what do you say to Armey and those who follow in line with him?
I'll say this: Mr. Armey, you're known around Washington as a poker player. Let's stack your words up against those expressed by these three AmeriCorps volunteers. Or any random three.
Then we'll put it to a vote. Who will come out looking greedy? Whose vision expresses American values? How much is the honorable gentleman willing to bet?
Mr. Armey, instead of criticizing those who give, try listening to these volunteers.