As we celebrate the 4th of July, we celebrate our patriotism and the millions who have shown their love of country by wearing the uniform. There are a few Veterans among us -- 16,000 so far -- who came home and volunteered for a second time and served their communities though AmeriCorps.
As announced by Dr. Jill Biden at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service last month, Nearly 1,000 new AmeriCorps Members will serve by and for veterans and military families in 2012. On average, they will bring along another forty volunteers with them, who combined, will Join Forces to give more than 2 million hours of service to the veteran and military families of America over the course of their service year.
I visited one of the winning grantees, a new VetCorps, The AmeriCorps Veterans Justice Corps last month. I sat down with a fellow combat veteran and a medic, who has committed her time to helping veterans re-integrate into society after a run-in with the legal system.
Amber Hale is a soft spoken, but direct no-nonsense veteran. She was as clear about her motivations for serving her community in Minnesota, as she was about serving in Iraq.
“When I was in Iraq, I was a medic. I helped to put people back together, to help make them well and whole again … when I came home I wanted to do the same thing, so I joined AmeriCorps. Now I work with veterans who took a wrong turn, and wound up in the criminal justice system,” said Amber “When these Veterans are ready to come home they will know that another Veteran is standing on the other side waiting to help them put their lives back together ... that’s why I chose to serve again.”
Amber brings other veteran volunteers to help mentor and coach veterans as they transition out of the justice system, and back to their communities. A tough job, but one she takes on with energy and determination. The “On Your Feet” initiative is modeled after the largely successful Minnesota Department of Corrections “Circles of Support” project originally developed in 1994.
The Circles of Support and Accountability program was created to help high-risk offenders successfully reintegrate into society, and was found to significantly reduce recidivism.
Small groups of volunteers give the veteran intensive support and reinforce accountability. The veteran circle lasts up to a year, and is comprised of regular weekly meetings attended by all of the support and volunteer members.
In addition to their work in the corrections system, the Minnesota Veteran Justice Corps program was heralded by one Judge as “indispensable” to her county’s Veteran Court initiatives. In the Veterans Court initiative, AmeriCorps members who are Veterans assist the local county judges and diversionary justice programs in finding the right answer for combat Veterans who found themselves on the wrong side of law, but who may also need additional help with access to behavioral health resources, and reintegration benefits.
Veterans serving in AmeriCorps will give veteran offenders access to alternative sentences, reentry service, job placement, peer mentor opportunities and raise public awareness of veterans' legal issues.
The Veterans Justice Corps was awarded nearly $600,000 for a three-year AmeriCorps grant, and nearly $300,000 in additional education awards for the AmeriCorps members helping Veterans in their communities. Combined, over the three year period, these AmeriCorps members will provide 60,000 hours of dedicated service assisting veterans with diversionary programs in the criminal justice system.
The Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice teamed up with AmeriCorps to help these Veterans during one of the most difficult times in their lives, and we wish them success in their program. We also know that people like Amber who never stop caring, even after the uniform comes off will always exemplify and personify the mantra from the Soldiers creed: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
On this Fourth of July, Amber is a patriot among the patriotic … and her service continues.
You can join Amber as an AmeriCorps member by visiting www.AmeriCorps.gov and looking for an opportunity near you.
Koby Langley is an Iraq War Veteran, and serves as the Senior Advisor for Wounded Warrior, Veteran and Military Family Initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service.