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A Half-Million Strong: AmeriCorps Volunteers Make a Difference

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Every school day, Diana Vining pulls aside small groups of struggling fourth graders in PS 133 in New York City and helps them with their math and reading. Diana, a City Year AmeriCorps member, offers extra help that really makes a difference—at a school that could not otherwise afford her services. 

Diana’s students are not only improving their math and reading levels. These young girls and boys are getting to know dedicated young adults like Diana who are convincing them that school is worth the effort. Diana, in turn, is learning from her students. When the 22-year-old graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, she wanted to be an architect, but now, thanks to her City Year AmeriCorps experience, she is planning a career in education.

This week the 500,000th AmeriCorps member took an oath, like Diana, to “get things done for America” while earning money to pay back student loans or further their higher education. For more than a decade, AmeriCorps members have been performing critically important progressive services for our country, although at first largely under the radar as the new program developed and then blossomed.

When President Clinton proposed AmeriCorps in 1993, the kind of program he envisioned was more theory than fact. Building on a handful of demonstration and small-scale community-based initiatives, AmeriCorps for the first time tied civilian service to educational opportunity. The new program provided many young adults with the extra help they needed to continue their education. 

But more importantly, AmeriCorps over time inspired a new wave of innovative problem solving as thousands of non-profit organizations starved for resources conjured up creative ways to deploy this new source of human capital. The quiet yet dogged performance of a half million AmeriCorps volunteers has mostly put to rest outdated images of national service “do-gooders” doing rote jobs that require little skill or supervision..

Yet at the same time policymakers have largely ignored national service as a strategy for addressing important issues in favor of more traditional public sector approaches. This is unfortunate. Over the past decade a variety of organizations have found ways to use AmeriCorps members to deliver important services that would not otherwise be provided, among them:

▪  Delivering outreach, case management, and health education services at community health centers. The diverse members of the Community Health Corps, organized by the National Association of Community Health, are trained to enroll patients into free or low-cost health insurance plans, help them navigate through the health care system, educate them to manage chronic conditions, and link them to other services such as housing and employment. AmeriCorps members working with the Community Health Corps often receive an added bonus—their experience “doing good” leads 85 percent of them to pursue future employment in the health care field.

▪  Staffing after-school programs. After-school programs run by Citizen Schools, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that leads a national network of programs serving low-income students, expose disadvantaged middle schoolers to career options through “apprenticeships” led by business and community leaders AmeriCorps members staff the program, which makes it possible for the community and business volunteers to engage the students. Students build solar cars, litigate mock trials, publish children’s books, manage stock portfolios, launch websites and gain the self-confidence that comes from saying, “I did that.” As a result, these students outperform their peers on school-related indicators, including attendance, on-time promotion, reduction in disciplinary incidents, grades in English and math, and standardized test scores in English, and are more likely to enroll in top-tier, college-track high schools.

▪  Providing the core person-power for an ambitious community development and environmental restoration effort in the 29-counties of Appalachian Ohio. Volunteers in AmeriCorps*VISTA, a full-time government service program run by AmeriCorps, are serving with the non-profit group Rural Action to lead fellow community members in a broad range of efforts to improve their watershed, build and strengthen local businesses and cultural institutions, diversify agriculture, and engage youth in positive community action. Staffed in part with eager, educated AmeriCorps volunteers, Rural Action is making a reality of its vision of clean streams, healthy forests, thriving family farms, meaningful jobs, and effective schools.

▪    Keeping urban classrooms and neighborhoods safe for children and families. Over 150 Harlem Peacekeepers—18-to-24-year olds who are trained in conflict resolution—each year work directly in classrooms and operate after-school and summer programs in local public schools, serving 1,200 elementary children in the Harlem Children’s Zone. With one Peacemaker assigned to each kindergarten-to-fifth-grade classroom, these young adult role models foster a safe and secure environment for learning. They also provide an array of support services, including watching children at meal times and recess, assisting with math and reading, and providing special attention to individual students.

▪  Rebuilding and restoring the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 5,000 AmeriCorps members have served in the Gulf since Katrina, rebuilding and restoring low-income neighborhoods, connecting families to the help they need, and salvaging materials. In addition, they have managed tens of thousands of other volunteers, including AmeriCorps alums, from inside and outside the region.

An important part of the success of all these programs is the unique ability of national service to attract energetic and often very talented young people into fields they might not otherwise enter—and for a fraction of the salary they might otherwise command. Human services organization, staffed in part with these volunteers, have thus found ways to deliver reliable services at a minimal cost.

Unfortunately, each of these programs and dozens like them operate on a small scale relative to the scope of the challenges they seek to address. One problem has been funding. With a declining budget in recent years, even the best AmeriCorps projects have faced a squeeze. Funding increases, as well as support for the “challenge grant” provision that would provide new funds to high quality programs that can match them two-to-one, would make room for the most effective programs to grow. These challenge grants have been authorized by Congress but to date have not been funded.

Other issues could be addressed through new authorizing legislation. The House Education Committee, for example, recently began holding hearings on a possible national service reauthorization bill, which if enacted, would be the first in 15 years. This legislation has the potential to take AmeriCorps to the next level by:

▪  Increasing or eliminating the cap on national direct grants. Originally proposed by Congress to limit grants to federal agencies, this cap effectively prevents substantial growth in non-profit programs that operate in more than one state.

▪  Creating tiers of support to acknowledge different stages of growth and capacity. As new programs mature and build their capacity, they need resources to plan for growth and ultimately, funding to reach new levels.

▪  Targeting specific issues. The efficacy of national service through AmeriCorps now proves that new funds could be targeted at these issues, including education, environment, and community development.

▪  Incorporating incentives to leverage other funding. Early on, Congress eliminated authority for AmeriCorps to make grants to federal agencies to run AmeriCorps programs. Congress should consider new incentives to support the federal Corporation for National Service’s efforts to partner with other agencies and support priority state initiatives.

When AmeriCorps was created 14 years ago, author Steve Waldman (now the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.com) described it as “the public policy equivalent of a Swiss army knife, performing numerous useful functions in one affordable package.” Experience since then shows he’s right. Now is the time to re-dedicate AmeriCorps to what it does best: national service that “gets things done.”

Shirley Sagawa is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a national expert on child and youth policy.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

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