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AmeriCorps, Eager To Expand, Backed By Presidential Candidates

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The public service AmeriCorps can't accommodate a two-year surge of 62 percent in volunteer applications. But it may be able to count on the winner of November's presidential election to support growth.

AmeriCorps, the federally funded organization that places about 80,000 volunteers in underserved communities each year, has been a hot destination in a sour economy. The organization's various programs received 582,000 volunteer applications in 2011, up from 360,000 in 2009.

The organization was spared from elimination in last summer's budget stalemate and President Barack Obama wants to maintain current funding. As it stands, AmeriCorps can't afford to expand volunteer positions.

"People are raising their hands and saying, 'I want to tackle the biggest challenges in our country today,'" AmeriCorps director John Gommperts told The Huffington Post. "It's hard not to have an opportunity for them."

One of the first pieces of legislation Obama signed as president, the Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, would have more than tripled the size of AmeriCorps to 250,000 volunteers from 75,000. Most of the funding was never appropriated as the recession took hold, but Obama remains an AmeriCorps supporter.

Though House Republicans called for the elimination of AmeriCorps last year, Obama's 2013 budget proposes $1.06 billion, an increase of $13.8 million, for the Corporation for National Community Service, the government body that funds AmeriCorps and other national service organizations. AmeriCorps funding wouldn't increase.

"This administration has made a very strong statement of the value it places on national service and on AmeriCorps," Gommperts said.

The leading Republican candidates, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, also have expressed support for national service programs.

Santorum said at a November town hall meeting in New Hampshire that he would like to see the funding appropriated at the state level.

"I've generally been a supporter of some of these programs because they are programs that leverage assets," Santorum said. "We need to give the states the ultimate flexibility and have some skin in the game with respect to some sources of funding."

Romney served on the board of City Year, a volunteer organization that helped spawn AmeriCorps.

In 2003, Romney, while Massachusetts governor, wrote a letter with Ed Rendell, then the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, asking then-President George W. Bush for an additional $100 million for AmeriCorps. The letter was signed by 41 other governors, Boston.com reported.

Some AmeriCorps programs have kept close track of the number of potential volunteers rejected.

FoodCorps, an organization that brings nutrition education and high-quality food to public schools, got more than 50 applications for 12 slots last year. Teach for America, which brings instructors to low-income communities, gets an estimated 50,000 applications for about 4,600 spots.

"All these programs have many times the number of applicants than the number of slots that they can fill," Gommperts said.

Gommperts attributed the demand in part to the economy and a renewed obligation to public service.

According to a recent Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative study, 35 percent of unemployed college graduates have been without a job for more than a year, the same as unemployed high school dropouts.

Additionally, every American 20-year-old's lifetime has been under presidents committed to service. AmeriCorps was created under President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush called on citizens to take action, by helping others, after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. And Obama continues to use budget dollars to keep national service programs thriving.

By committing a year to AmeriCorps, volunteers say they make themselves desirable to potential employers and serve their country.

"The thing [volunteers] say to me, time and time again is, 'I am where I am because of my AmeriCorps experience,'" Gommperts said. "That is the overwhelming narrative."

Put your good ideas into action. Find out ways to get involved with AmeriCorps here.

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