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While decision-makers can’t seem to agree on how to improve the economy and tackle the country’s toughest challenges, one thing even Congress can agree on is the value of service in strengthening communities. This year, during AmeriCorps Week, March 10-18th, we honor the service of AmeriCorps members and alumni in our communities.
What is AmeriCorps anyway? It can be difficult to explain. Most people are content with the explanation that it’s the “domestic version of the Peace Corps”, but that doesn’t scratch the surface of the diversity of projects AmeriCorps Nation Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and State and National members tackle during their ten months to one year of service.
AmeriCorps NCCC members travel in teams to complete short-term, hands-on service projects that meet critical needs. From responding to disasters, to clearing trails, to building houses and tutoring students, NCCC teams know how to get the job done! AmeriCorps State and National members as well as VISTAs, on the other hand, work individually at local and national organizations to address critical community needs in education, public safety, health and the environment. Corps members take limited resources and create sustainable programs to serve the underserved.
AmeriCorps VISTA is the AmeriCorps branch focused specifically on fighting poverty by improving capacity and increasing sustainability of non-profit and public agencies. Creating volunteer programs, revenue sources and project plans are only a few of the ways VISTAs build capacity where they serve. Exposed to the challenges of living on a limited income, VISTAs are at the front lines of the fight for economic justice taking place in our communities.
This year’s theme for AmeriCorps Week is AmeriCorps Works, emphasizing AmeriCorps’ triple bottom line return on investment: for the recipients of service, the people who serve, the larger community, and the nation. AmeriCorps members benefit by gaining valuable work experience and skills as well as an educational award at the end of service. Communities benefit by the lasting results of Corps members work to respond to emergencies, tackle service projects, and create sustainable programs in areas of need. AmeriCorps members get community members involved in service and recruited over 3.4 million community volunteers last year throughout the US. In this way AmeriCorps Works and keeps on working for Corps members, the communities in which they serve, and the nation as a whole.
One way in which AmeriCorps Works is by putting people to work. Last year 582,000 people applied for 82,000 available positions! While Corps members are considered “volunteers” and paid a “living allowance” rather than wages or salary, the program certainly creates jobs for many. While federal government employment programs were largely dismantled in the early 80s, volunteer programs have gained support from conservative and liberal leaders alike. Yet the program’s very existence was threatened by budget cuts last summer and the increased funding promised in the Edward M. Kennedy Service Act of 2009 has yet to be allocated to the program.
At a time of high unemployment, AmeriCorps Works by creating work opportunities and building employable skills. At a time when student debt is sky high, AmeriCorps Works by providing education awards and loan forbearance. At a time when budget cuts at the local, state, and federal level threaten the sustainability of services, AmeriCorps Works by providing VISTA, State, and National members to non-profit agencies, and deploying NCCC teams to work on environmental, disaster, and educational projects among others. When Poverty reveals herself as crisis of epidemic proportions, AmeriCorps Works. AmeriCorps Works and it won’t stop working so long as decision-makers are made to see the value of national service. Meanwhile Corps members and alums remain actively engaged in their communities, making the call to their fellow citizens to join their efforts to strengthen our nation through community service.
About the author: Before joining Community Link as VISTA Leader for the Sacramento Region, Rachel served as a VISTA at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services for two years. She leads VISTAs at 9 local project sites: Communities & Health Practitioners Together, FCUSD Parent Engagement Project, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, Sacramento Area Emergency Housing Center, Sacramento Steps Forward, New Hope Community Development Corporation, The Greenhouse, and The City of Sacramento Volunteer Program, and Sacramento Coalition for Working Families