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Guest blogger Riva Warrilow is an intern at the Case Foundation.
Americans have long prided themselves on the sense of goodwill and compassion they have for their fellow man.
Although part of this commitment may be inherent in our culture, there has also been important legislation and landmark initiatives throughout US history to encourage service.
At a time when some argue that this value has fallen by the wayside, and in light of National Volunteer Week taking place next week, it’s important to look back at this inspiring history and to look forward to the future of volunteerism and service in the US. Please note, this list is by no means comprehensive and does not discount the efforts of countless other individuals who have made a difference in the world of service! Here are just a few of the milestones in the history of volunteerism in the US.
Peace Corps, 1961 In the post-World War II atmosphere, a time of widespread revolution in the developing world, the Peace Corps was created by President Kennedy. The goal was not only to maintain a US presence in Africa and Latin America, but to foster cross-cultural understanding and respect. Although it focuses on international development, the creation of the Peace Corps is a key moment in the US service movement because it succeeded in engaging a largely disillusioned generation of youth in service.
Volunteers in Service to America Act (VISTA), 1964 In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson took aim at reinvigorating the effort to win the war on poverty through service with the Volunteers in Service to America Act. The VISTA Act represents a formal attempt by the government to get people involved in volunteering at a community level. Volunteers were enlisted to serve full time in low-income neighborhoods and schools for a 12 month period. The VISTA program was later merged with AmeriCorps, but retains its central goal of encouraging service among young Americans.
Retired Service Volunteer Program (RSVP), 1971 Who better than to volunteer in our communities than people with a lifetime of experience and knowledge? At a time when much of the focus was being placed on young Americans, RSVP was created to involve citizens over the age of 55 in volunteer efforts. The program, now part of Senior Corps, reiterated the value of our older citizens and gave them the opportunity to use their experiences to better their community. Today, RSVP acts as a network to connect senior citizens with volunteer organizations in their area.
Points of Light Foundation, 1989 It started with a poetic phrase in President H.W. Bush’s inaugural address and became one of the leading volunteer foundations in the country. This bipartisan organization promotes civic engagement through research, policy advocacy and annual events with the goal to “inspire, equip and mobilize” Americans everywhere to get involved. In 2007, Points of Light merged with HandsOn Network, renaming itself the Points of Light Institute and becoming the largest service management and civic involvement organization in the US.
MLK Day of Service, 1993 Although some people may think of Martin Luther King Jr. day as just another excuse for long weekend, it is meant to be “a day ON, not a day OFF.” Beginning in 1993, the third Monday in January has been designated as a national day of service. Every year, people across the nation go out into their communities to honor Dr. King by participating in volunteer service. This day is considered a hallmark of the volunteer movement in the US because it unites people of widely diverse backgrounds and political leanings as they work together for the betterment of their communities.
AmeriCorps, 1993 “I will get things done for America.” This first line of the AmeriCorps pledge truly embodies the original spirit of the organization’s creation. AmeriCorps, initiated in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, requires volunteers to participate in full time service in a US city for 10-12 months. Participants receive a modest stipend or money to go towards their education. AmeriCorps continues to be a great way to dive headfirst into the world of service, build lifelong friendships and truly make a difference.
Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), 1993 1993 was a big year for service in the US! In addition to the creation of the MLK Day of Service, the CNCS was also established. The creation and continuance of this government agency represents the federal government’s commitment to service. The CNCS strives to build up our nation at a community level and to improve lives through service. The CNCS also works to incorporate public-private partnerships into their program strategies. Today, the CNCS manages AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn & Serve America.
Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, 2009 Think of the Serve America Act as a facelift for US volunteerism. Through the expansion of existing programs like AmeriCorps and the introduction of new programs to focus on clean energy and healthcare, the Serve America Act seeks to rejuvenate the spirit of service in America. Recognizing high school student volunteers and increasing volunteer opportunities in underprivileged communities are two other important upgrades included in the act.
Cities of Service, 2009 This bi-partisan coalition of mayors in cities across the nation marks the latest initiative in the US service timeline. In September 2009, a group of 17 mayors committed to ramp up efforts to engage citizens in volunteer projects in fresh, innovative ways. The coalition is currently working to get more mayors on board so that together, they can meet the ambitious goals outlined in the Serve America Act.
We know we left some out! What are some other initiatives you see as groundbreaking milestones in this timeline? And looking forward, what are your thoughts on the future of service in the US?