This week, the U.S. Senate can give final approval to the largest expansion in national service since President Kennedy inspired the creation of VISTA and the Peace Corps.
The House recently voted 321-105 to expand AmeriCorps and other national service programs, and a similar bill called the Serve America Act is currently being debated by the Senate. President Obama has expressed strong support for the bill and is reportedly poised to sign it into law as soon as it arrives on his desk.
It is critical that the Senate passes Serve America so that more Americans have the opportunity to serve in communities all around our country. Expanding service and volunteerism — including adding 175,000 participants to national service programs — would reverse years of neglect and cuts. For AmeriCorps, it means augmenting its capability to make this a better country with a cadre of individuals focused on serving the common good. This is a time when more people than ever need a helping hand, and when more out-of-work Americans would welcome the chance to give back in a very meaningful way.
Americans are ready to serve; applications to AmeriCorps in February were triple the number they were over the same month last year. In addition to expanding full-time service opportunities, the bill includes a Summer of Service program for middle and high school student volunteers, who would earn a $500 education award to be applied toward college.
The legislation would create a volunteer generation fund to train, recruit, and place volunteers strategically, and it provides grants to small start-ups to encourage the sort of social entrepreneurship that has germinated a collection of successful nonprofit organizations.
It creates tax breaks for businesses that give employees paid time off to volunteer, and sets up “encore fellowships” for older volunteers and professionals.
The expansion passage could also be significant by helping to boost public service as a more common career path. This was my experience, and it is one for which I am forever grateful. I graduated from my Ivy League college with a fancy degree in hand and no idea what I really wanted to do with myself.
I had applied to AmeriCorps on a whim, and a few months later I found myself in South Carolina on one of the five regional campuses of the National Civilian Community Corps program. For 10 months, I worked side by side with my team of nine other 18-24 year olds from all around the country. We came from all backgrounds, all walks of life, but we were united in the common purpose of service. Together we built bridges, trained to be wildland firefighters, repaired homes that were crumbling from neglect, tutored the children who had never before been told they could succeed.
I came back for a second year of AmeriCorps, this time to lead a team through another series of direct service projects across the south.
We worked in a children’s hospital in Arkansas, built a playground for a school in South Carolina where the kids had never had recess, put hurricane ties on more houses in Florida than I can count, and repaired trails and footpaths in a beautiful state park in Tennessee.
We filled in the gaps, and we met critical needs in communities that could not do it any other way. Brick by brick, shovel by shovel, my teammates and I worked together to make a difference.
It was because of my two years in AmeriCorps that I committed myself to a life of public service; I had seen the problems first-hand and there was no going back. I went on to graduate school in public policy and have continued to work in national service.
I believe in the power of service with such conviction because I’ve seen the face of a child whose face lights up when a caring adult believes in her. I’ve seen the joy of a child who can now run safely on the playground, and the tears that flow from a family’s eyes when they step into their own home for the very first time.
Yes, we need credit to flow again, and we need to clean up the toxic assets that are clogging bank balance sheets. But more importantly we need to work together for a common purpose. Every single one of us is hurting now, but together we can make it right. Service and volunteerism are the vehicles to get this great country back on track again.
Diana Epstein was born and raised in Los Angeles and is now a fourth year doctoral student in policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica. She did two years of full-time national service in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program after graduating from Brown University. She can be reached at Diana.Epstein@gmail.com.