National Service Strengthens America

By Wendy Spencer 

Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Wendy Spencer is surrounded by AmeriCorps members during the Reaching the Summit Community Service Initiative event in West Virginia in July 2013.

CNCS CEO promotes the benefits of service for City Year UK essay collection

Whenever I read stories that attempt to rank how well a nation is doing in one way or another, I feel as though something is missing. It’s not that these rankings are unimportant; it’s just that it leaves me cold to see a country’s wellbeing described through pie charts and bar graphs. 

Naturally, as the CEO of the federal agency that leads national and community service in the United States, I am a little biased in this belief. However, my years of experience serving with volunteers have proven to me time and time again that the strength of our nation comes from the voluntary acts of its citizens. 

All of us in the U.S. national service movement strongly believe in the power of the people to bring about change in areas where it is needed most. Sometimes the change is simple, such as the personal connection a service member makes with another person that builds the bonds of community. At other times, the results are greater, like when a tutor works with a struggling student and teaches her to read, opening the doors to better economic opportunities down the road.

Another great thing about national service is that we are not only helping those who face some of life’s greatest challenges. Anyone who volunteers knows the joy and satisfaction that comes from this kind of service, and that’s because selfless acts not only help the people being served but also benefit those providing the service. And we have found in our studies that those serving make connections and learn valuable skills that can help them find a job later. National service is a victory for all of the parties involved.

In the U.S. we have been fortunate to have bipartisan support from Presidential leadership that believes in the value of people and has provided the opportunities for them to answer a call to service. The Corporation for National and Community Service is primarily a grantmaking agency that works with the nonprofit sector and faith-based organizations to support these good works and continues some efforts that have been in place for almost 50 years. 

Additionally, we are expanding our reach through public-private partnerships and interagency cooperation to provide more opportunities for service each year.

All told, our 75,000 AmeriCorps members and 315,000 Senior Corps volunteers serve in 60,000 locations across our nation and mobilize an additional 4 million volunteers. These programs tap into the power and knowledge of our citizenry, regardless of whether they have a lifetime of experiences to draw from or are just beginning to find their way in the world.

That last part is especially important, as the majority of our AmeriCorps members come from a pool of young adults who are eager for this opportunity to serve their nation. We send these AmeriCorps members into tough situations for a service year as poverty fighters, disaster responders, firefighters, teachers, and peer counselors – just to name a few of the ways our members serve – and they bring an energy and creativity to their assignments that is impressive, to say the least.

Even better, the service year provides a reward that goes beyond the good works being done. Our AmeriCorps members earn a scholarship that can be used to reduce college costs or repay student loans. So the service year not only benefits communities, it increases economic opportunity for our members by encouraging post-secondary education and reducing student debt. Their service experiences also increase the civic activity and awareness of our AmeriCorps members while transforming their lives for the better whether they came to us as a high school dropout or a college graduate.

That’s the beauty of national service – the ability to improve lives while transforming communities through the power of our people. These Americans give a year or more to serve their nation, but they get so much more in return – the chance to learn, lead, grow, explore new opportunities, and become stronger citizens. And the nation is made stronger because of their service.

This post appeared in the City Year UK essay collection “Citizen Power: Unlocking Young People’s Potential Through Voluntary Service.” Wendy Spencer is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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