There's an old story about a character named Uncle Ben, whose life was in shambles until his nieces and nephews were orphaned. He pulled himself together then, because he was needed.

Salt Lake County Commissioner Mike Stewart loves the story. It carries, he said, a message that the commission has tried to follow:Utah's elderly population has much to offer youth.

"If you look at the old Greek stories, while the parents worked, the children were raised by the older people. They were the ones with the wisdom, patience and charm to deal with youth," Stewart said.

"Utah has the fifth-fastest-growing population per capita in the nation. In fact, I told Joyce Berry (commissioner of the Administration on Aging) that I believe Aging should be an undersecretary position. We want the full authority of aging components in our budget. But we don't want a lot of federal laws. We need the flexibility to do local planning. We need to be able to tailor programs, whether it's more Meals on Wheels, Alternatives or recreation."

This year, the county put its money where its mouth is, establishing a program called "Bridges" in conjunction with educators in the Granite School District.

The program, funded by the county, puts senior citizen volunteers in grades one through six for three to four hours a week with students who are considered "at risk." There are still openings for senior volunteers. Eventually, the program is expected to expand into junior and senior high schools.

"If you don't threaten the education budget, you can do a lot in partnership with schools."

Bridges is a small component of the county's volunteer efforts. Senior citizens are a huge segment of the volunteer corps, but all ages are represented, 12,000 volunteers a year. New federal law protects state and county volunteers from civil liability.

The horseback riders who patrol Dimple Dell, Sheriff's Reserve members, companions for the elderly, even the woman who clips articles about the county, free up paid staff for other duties and save the county thousands of dollars. More important, according to Stewart, volunteers gain ownership of the community and expand their lives as they expand the lives of others.

Salt Lake County recently wrote a "Volunteer Toolbox," an initiative of the National Association of Counties (NACo), which Stewart chairs. The reference book explains the basics of volunteer program management, including job descriptions, policies and tips on keeping volunteers active.

Stewart presented a copy of the Volunteer Toolbox to the White House Office of National Service during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and told officials of the need for a National Center for Voluntarism. National Service officials want to help distribute the toolbox.

Next, NACo hopes to present President Bush with a "dividend": 3,140 "points of light" in a book that features a volunteer from each of the 3,140 counties in NACo.

In the meantime, the county is beefing up plans for volunteers. Counties, according to Stewart, are the foot soldiers. And what's practiced in Salt Lake County is "muscular voluntarism."