Today, on the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, the dysfunction and division in the current Congress threaten to create yet another casualty: young Americans eager to serve their country by teaching in schools, mentoring children, and working in communities struggling with poverty or ravaged by disaster.
In 1993, President Clinton signed the AmeriCorps legislation to create a domestic equivalent to the Peace Corps, where young Americans could engage in a year of national service for a small living stipend and a scholarship. At the time, many Republicans in Congress voiced skepticism and outright hostility toward the program as another government boondoggle that would create nothing but make-work for its participants.
But as young people around the country began signing up for AmeriCorps and making a real difference in the communities they served, partisan opinions began to change. In the wake of September 11, 2001, Senator John McCain wrote a piece arguing that Republicans had been wrong about AmeriCorps. I joined AmeriCorps in an era when a Republican president, George W. Bush, recognized the value of service and signed legislation that expanded the number of service opportunities. With the help of Republican senators like McCain and Orrin Hatch, President Obama signed similar legislation in 2009.
Today, polls consistently show that national service is the rare issue supported by huge majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. And yet, despite the fact that AmeriCorps applications hit a record of nearly 600,000 in 2012, nearly 85 percent of those applications were turned away because this Congress has refused to fully fund the bipartisan national service legislation that they passed. And as we approach another round of budget negotiations, a group of Republican congressmen in the House are once again trying to eliminate the AmeriCorps program entirely.
To destroy AmeriCorps would be to deny thousands of young children a teacher who cared or a mentor who listened. Understaffed health clinics would lose trained corps members to help low-income residents who would otherwise fall between the cracks of the healthcare system. Communities that have been devastated by natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy and the flooding in Colorado would lose the thousands of young men and women who are helping them recover and rebuild.
This is a time to expand, not eliminate, opportunities for Americans to serve their country. National service can help us meet some of the country’s most pressing challenges at a time when budget cuts have slashed services from education to disaster relief. Service gives young Americans graduating without a job the real-life experiences and skills that today’s employers increasingly value. And national service can be a unifying, purposeful antidote to the spread of division, selfishness, and cynicism that in no way represents who we are as Americans.
Twice in the last two years, ServiceNation, a grassroots movement of service supporters, and its partners defeated the threat to eliminate AmeriCorps by making their voices heard in the halls of Congress. And today, ServiceNation has grown to 100,000 members and a coalition of 400 organizations to advocate for all of the AmeriCorps programs and the communities they serve. But if we hope to make national service a national priority, we need more voices to speak even louder.
We need to hear from more Americans who have served and those who believe that service can change lives. We need to hear from people like Heath Cobb, a veteran who did three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was hit with an improvised explosive device (IED). He wrote, “I found the pride I felt when serving others was the same pride I felt by defending others. Because of my service with AmeriCorps, suddenly my sense of self was restored, my identity renewed. This, my friends, is the answer that many of our vets are seeking.”
At City Year, an education-focused organization where I spent my year of AmeriCorps, I can still remember a student named Milton. He was a quiet kid who was trying to escape the grip of gang life. One day he motioned from his desk that he had something to tell me. I bent down and he whispered, “You know what I’d do if I had a million dollars? I’d buy City Year.”
I was as surprised as I was inspired. But what meant the most was his answer when I asked him why: “So it would never go away.” That tells you simply and powerfully what AmeriCorps mean to students and communities across the nation.
For Milton and the millions of students who need support, for Heath and the veterans who need opportunities to aide their reintegration, and for the young Americans like me who want to give a year to the country that has given us so much, it’s time to tell our leaders in Washington that AmeriCorps isn’t just another program that needs to go away. Now more than ever, America needs the spirit of unity and selflessness embodied in national service, so that committed citizens can change as many lives in the next 20 years as they have in the last 20. Building this movement can be our generation’s greatest task, and our lasting legacy.