National service is one of America’s most hallowed traditions. As Alexis De Tocqueville noted in 1835, we are a nation of joiners. Ours is a country where people take collective action for the good of all.
Since the early 1900s, government has created conditions that make it easier for people to join and give back. For example, President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that put people to work and contributed to “future national wealth.” President Kennedy called on young people to serve, domestically through VISTA and internationally through the Peace Corps. In 1994, President Clinton created AmeriCorps to bring together disparate national service opportunities and to scale our ability to strengthen communities through civic participation. Today, AmeriCorps is our nation’s most expansive service program.
Since its founding, more than 706,000 men and women have joined AmeriCorps and pledged to “get things done for America.” Across the nation, AmeriCorps service members have demonstrated commitment to strengthening our communities by joining programs such as Teach for America, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Public Allies, and Youth Build. All of these are AmeriCorps initiatives. The selfless and caring citizens that join AmeriCorps confirm the adage that tomorrow can be better than today if we each extend a helping hand to our neighbors.
As we continue the ongoing process of economic recovery and workforce renewal, AmeriCorps can be seen as a critical element of a holistic human capital strategy for the country. It is a means by which we can leverage our latent talent and channel it into something kinetic that realizes public good. Last year, AmeriCorps received a record of more than 580,000 applications for just 80,000 positions. More than half a million people applied to join the program, not for financial gain, but because they were driven to make real community impact.
The AmeriCorps program has enabled communities to receive long-term support for needs in education, public safety, and health while some of its impact has been far more immediate. Over the past few weeks, a series of devastating tornadoes swept across the Midwest. AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers immediately were deployed to assist with the cleanup and distribution of essential items such as blankets, bottled water, and food. As it has done during some of our nation’s worst natural disasters – the tornados in Joplin in 2011; the Gulf oil spill in 2010; Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – AmeriCorps quickened the recovery and facilitated the rebuilding of affected communities. Whether reconstructing homes in disaster-stricken areas or helping at-risk youth stay on track for high school graduation, these every-day heroes change millions of lives across the nation, expanding opportunity and enriching prosperity to the benefit of all.
Service initiatives like AmeriCorps do more than move communities forward; they serve their members by creating jobs and providing pathways to opportunity for young people entering the workforce. Thanks to programs like AmeriCorps, thousands of young adults are placed into intensive service positions where they learn valuable work skills, earn money for education, and develop an appreciation for citizenship.
This week, we commemorate AmeriCorps Week to celebrate the remarkable individuals and their contributions to ourcountry. The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation will dedicate our blog all week to showcase stories of people who transformed the lives of others through their service and, in turn, experienced personal and professional transformations of their own.
The late Senator Robert Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history, itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” AmeriCorps members represent some of the important authors of our unfolding history – and it is our honor to lift up their voices and elevate their examples to inspire us all.
Jonathan Greenblatt is Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the Domestic Policy Council