Op-Ed

Trump budget threatens AmeriCorps and the spirit of national service

An AmeriCorps member with Habitat works during a Habitat for Humanity Wall Build Wednesday, September 25, 2013, at the Downtown Raleigh Farmers Market. Volunteers put the walls together for a three-bedroom, 1100 square foot home.
An AmeriCorps member with Habitat works during a Habitat for Humanity Wall Build Wednesday, September 25, 2013, at the Downtown Raleigh Farmers Market. Volunteers put the walls together for a three-bedroom, 1100 square foot home. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The Trump administration announced on February 12 that it plans to eliminate AmeriCorps, other related national service programs, and their parent organization, The federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). I want to share some insights into AmeriCorps based on my 20 years of professional oversight of one of the North Carolina AmeriCorps programs and my own experience through a year of direct service as an AmeriCorps member after my retirement.

AmeriCorps began in 1994, billed as a domestic Peace Corps, with bipartisan support. Started under the Clinton administration, it had financial support from the Points of Light Foundation, a George Bush 41-inspired initiative to encourage civic responsibility. AmeriCorps participants, called Members, provide a year or more of community service, full or part time, under the supervision of local nonprofit and faith based organizations. Different projects have different goals: tutoring children, assisting homeless, employment training and placement, providing English language classes, addressing food insecurity, disaster relief, and other federally deemed “high impact services.”

People accepted as Members into AmeriCorps programs do not draw a salary but many receive a small stipend, less than minimum wage. Their direct service is supplemented with related professional training. Upon successful completion of a year of service, the AmeriCorps alum may receive a scholarship for higher education. State government recommends AmeriCorps programs for federal funding and provides oversight. Local programs are required to raise a local cash and in-kind match from community partners. It is a true public-private partnership.

The State of North Carolina has typically authorized a dozen or more different AmeriCorps programs around the state, annually. This year there are 17 programs operating across our State with a total of 1,200 Members- over 20,000 Members since 1994. Services provided by AmeriCorps Members are not otherwise available through their community partners. It truly addresses unmet needs and encourages Members to become civically engaged, selflessly serving others in need.

I have seen about 1,000 AmeriCorps Members pass through the program I managed during my 20 years of supervision. They assisted over 100,000 North Carolinians in receiving job training, finding jobs, finding housing, learning to read, gaining access to health care, addressing food insecurity if needed and becoming responsible citizens of our state. Other AmeriCorps programs in the state have similar records of experience. The same pattern is repeated in AmeriCorps programs in other states across the nation. CNCS reports 75,000 AmeriCorps Members serving across the nation this year.

When these AmeriCorps Members complete their terms of service, they continue their higher education with help from their AmeriCorps higher education scholarships. Many realize their professional goals through their term of service. North Carolina has accrued thousands of AmeriCorps alumni who are now teachers, social workers, lawyers, attorneys, medical workers, business owners, pastors, and other responsible members of society who got their start in being good citizens by their own experience of serving others through AmeriCorps.

My own experience as an AmeriCorps Member, after my retirement, was a modest quarter time position without stipend, assisting young Montagnards in helping their elders achieve self-sufficiency. Montagnards are tribal peoples from Vietnam, many who were forced to flee as refugees because they had assisted US Special Forces during the Vietnam War. Most were resettled in North Carolina. Now, their children and grandchildren, many of them college students, are organizing to help their elders, who are often still living close to poverty in their old age. I coached these young people as they assisted their elders with job searches, interpretation, getting affordable health care, applying for citizenship and learning other survival skills for the elderly.

The Trump administration has put this national service program on the chopping block in its new proposed budget. In fact, AmeriCorps is a relatively inexpensive program, using local resources, meeting basic human needs, training the next generation, and bringing out the best in all of us through national service. Closing this national program would be a big discredit to what our country stands for. Many people in our state would lose valuable high impact services that are not available to them through any other means. Tell Congress that AmeriCorps is making America great.

Raleigh Bailey of Greensboro is a former AmeriCorps member and manager.

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