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NATIONAL SERVICE PROGRAM IS WAY TO REJECT CYNICISM, SELFISHNESS

Think of it as an antidote to cynicism, a rejection of the rampant selfishness that managed somehow to become fashionable in the 1980s.

Think of it as a return to the can-do spirit of the '50s and '60s, when large numbers of Americans believed it was possible to find remedies for violence and injustice, for poverty and ignorance, for the buffoonery and corruption of politicians, and for the wholesale degradation of the environment."I challenge a new generation of young Americans to a season of service," said President Clinton in his inaugural address.

On Sept. 12, amid elaborate ceremonies planned for the South Lawn of the White House, the president's national service program will get fully under way.

It's called AmeriCorps and it's described as a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

Under the program, several thousand young Americans from all kinds of backgrounds will offer their services to organizations working on problems related to education, public safety, social services and the environment.

For a two-year commitment, the participants will be paid $7,500 a year and will receive a credit of $9,450 ($4,725 a year) that can be used for college or graduate school expenses.

The program will reach into urban, suburban and rural America. Parts of it have already started. Young men and women are helping to restore wildlife habitats, conducting childhood immunization programs, escorting children and the elderly through dangerous inner-city neighborhoods, counseling drug abusers, providing preventive health services and improving neglected playgrounds, parks and wetlands.

Besides providing assistance to many worthwhile organizations, AmeriCorps is a way for young people to see a variety of fellow Americans up close and personal, the way they really are, without the distorting filter of the boob tube.

"Whenever possible," said Eli Segal, chief chaperone for this noble effort, "we want youngsters from different geographic areas, from different races and ethnic groups and from different economic backgrounds to pitch in and work together."

Segal, an assistant to the president, is the chief executive of the Corporation for National Service. He expects to have 20,000 AmeriCorps enlistees spread out across the country by the end of the year.

There should be more to patriotism than singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a ball game, or rooting (from the comfort of our living rooms) for the American team to win a nationally televised war.

AmeriCorps is a start.