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Students Can Improve National Service

SOURCE: AP/EcoMedia, David Adame

AmeriCorps volunteers and community partners plant trees at historic Virginia Key Beach Park in Miami on May 18, 2008. The number of applicants for AmeriCorps programs and volunteer trainings have doubled or tripled over previous years.

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CAPAF’s Shirley Sagawa testifies before U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Read the full testimony (CAPAF)

Twenty years ago, this committee put together demonstration legislation to test whether young Americans serve their communities full-time for a year, or part-time for a longer period, in exchange for money for college? The answer was an overwhelming “yes.” Serve America would not only build on this strong track record, but expand other types of service. It could not come at a more critical time.

Over the last two decades, we have learned that serving changes lives. We have also learned something even more important— that service can be a valuable strategy to solve some of the nation’s most pressing problems. That’s why we need the issue-focused corps in Serve America.

Another notable and surprising success of AmeriCorps is the contribution it has made to innovation in the social sector. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a long track record of supporting social entrepreneurs. It makes sense that Serve America includes a Community Solutions Funds Pilot Program that will use federal dollars to leverage public and private contributions to take innovative and effective organizations to scale.

The Commission on Cross-Sector Solutions to America’s Problems is also an important part of the legislation. It will explore the relationship of the federal government with nonprofit organizations as well as business to achieve better outcomes and utilization of resources. This examination is long overdue.

There are several other important provisions I want to highlight:

  • The Volunteer Generation Fund would improve the capacity of nonprofit, faith-based, and other organizations and state commissions to engage new volunteers.
  • Service-learning is expanded through the Youth Engagement Zones and Campus of Service Programs. A substantial body of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that service-learning promotes positive youth development, motivating students to achieve and teaching personal, social, and civic responsibility. Expanding and modifying the existing Learn and Serve America legislation should be a high priority, along with legislation to create a “Summer of Service” to offer students making the transition to high school an opportunity to participate in community service program over the summer.
  • The alumni of AmeriCorps and other national service programs represent a growing and capable resource that can meet the workload surge following a disaster. The National Service Reserve Corps would build a system to implement this on a large scale.

Finally, the Committee needs to reauthorize the programs authorized under the National and Community Service and Domestic Volunteer Service Acts. These programs have not been revisited for 15 years and are badly in need of updating. For example:

  • We need to increase and index the Segal Education Award.
  • We also need to move to a system of fixed price grants in AmeriCorps to eliminate complex accounting requirements.
  • The Senior Corps programs are also in need of updating, particularly the stipend provided to Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions.
  • We can attract more top students by granting AmeriCorps members the same noncompetitive eligibility for federal service available to Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers and supporting the proposed Roosevelt Scholars Act, which creates an ROTC-like program for federal service.

CAPAF’s Shirley Sagawa testifies before U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Read the full testimony (CAPAF)

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