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For those who believe that we must engage citizens in helping to solve the pressing problems facing our communities and our country, the last two years have been a whirlwind of excitement and achievement.
In April 2009 Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, authorizing the greatest expansion of service since the New Deal. Citizens of all ages, and especially young people, are stepping forward to serve in record numbers. Service and volunteering enjoy broad bipartisan support in Congress.
It hasn’t always been that rosy a picture for supporters of national and community service. In 2003, a snarl of unfortunate events led to devastating cuts in funding for nonprofit organizations who recruit and mobilize AmeriCorps members. Age old arguments about paid volunteering and government mismanagement threatened the program, which had become a vital resource for nonprofit and community organizations facing mounting challenges in under-resourced communities across America. In the wake of the funding cuts, Americans stepped forward to raise their voices in protest. Corporate CEOs, university presidents, leaders of faith-based and community organizations and governors and mayors across the political spectrum told stories that illuminated the critical role of the federal investment in service in communities large and small, rural and urban, across the country. Editorial boards from The New York Times to the Houston Chronicle and columnists across the country weighed in. Thousands of citizens came to Washington on buses, trains and in cars to tell their inspiring stories of service and impact during a “citizens hearing” that ran for 100 consecutive hours.
The Save AmeriCorps Campaign shared the stories of thousands of acts of selfless sacrifice and service. It also led to the creation of Voices for National Service, a diverse coalition of national service and community volunteering programs, state service commissions, alumni of service programs and dedicated champions who are committed to educating our nation’s leaders about the critical role that national service members and community volunteers play every day, transforming the lives and life chances of those they serve, and their own in turn.
Our country faces a precarious economic climate and tight budgets at every level of government, soaring unemployment, rising costs of healthcare, food insecurity and a crisis in education. Community agencies and nonprofit organizations who serve our most vulnerable populations cannot meet the ever-increasing demand for services, and schools are struggling to serve students who are falling off track in record numbers. National service members and community volunteers play an essential role in strengthening a frayed safety net by providing human capital to meet the increased demand for services, through their own service and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers they mobilize every year. Every day, service leaders are creating innovative new ways to solve persistent social problems.
This week in Washington, service leaders, champions, alumni and supporters will gather to educate Members of Congress about the hundreds of thousands of lives made better through their service as part of the 7th Annual Voices for National Service Capitol Hill Day. They will share stories of heroism and sacrifice, and they will share the facts about the tremendous return on the federal investment in the programs funded through the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Research shows that national and community service is a cost-effective human capital strategy for community agencies, schools and nonprofit organizations. Particularly for disadvantaged youth, who are most affected by high youth unemployment rates, service offers a chance to develop skills and experience and helps create pathways to work. Research also shows that alumni of service programs are more likely to volunteer and be civically involved throughout their lives, meeting critical needs, developing skills, strengthening their communities and helping our democracy meet its potential.
The bipartisan co-sponsors of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act envisioned a new era of service and civic engagement focused on mobilizing Americans to roll up their sleeves to help solve the pressing problems of our time. That vision will only be realized when Congress provides the resources required to bring it to life. In these times of unprecedented challenges, service isn't just nice, it's necessary.
Guest blogger AnnMaura Connolly is President of Voices for National Service.