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AmeriCorps...Still Making a Difference

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Seven years ago, I was in the third grade in Goose Creek, South Carolina, a suburb of Charleston. I remember only a few things about my third grade education: my love for civics, how a law is crafted, and the basics behind how the federal government creates our country's budget. But, mostly, I remember the special person who helped me learn these things. Even though I can barely recall her face and have completely forgotten her last name, Ms. Kimberly was an AmeriCorps volunteer who visited my school every day for a semester. I could have never predicted that now, seven years later, I would be leveraging my skills in civics to keep people like Ms. Kimberly serving other children in Title 1 schools.

As a third grader, I remember Ms. Kimberly's team walking down Boulder Bluff Elementary's colorful hallways with smiles. They were so tall and I was so little. They each wore their black AmeriCorps vests. They stood out and looked like an army of superheroes. In classes of 25 or more busy bodies, these AmeriCorps volunteers helped each student understand what was being taught. Ms. Kimberly eventually had to leave to go back to her home in Vermont. After she had left, I remember she sent me a postcard with the Vermont capitol building on it. I hope she reads this blog post one day because she was an inspiration to me and so many of my peers. She cared at a time in my life when I was going through a lot of family changes. That is all it takes to make an impact with anyone.

After moving to Georgia in the eighth grade, I found another AmeriCorps volunteer who is still making a difference in my life now that I am in the tenth grade. Teresa Docherty helped me transition onto the Earth Force board of directors. After leading community-wide environmental programs in my hometown, Earth Force wanted me to take a youth seat on their board and be part of making their environmental service-learning programs better. Teresa was that person in Earth Force who helped me formally accept the board membership nomination. Although this was originally an assignment from her boss, she went above and beyond what she was told to do when working with me. I remember asking her so many questions about being an AmeriCorps VISTA. These questions were the first of many more questions to come.

Teresa and other Earth Force staff were there for me as I began grant writing for my organization, Greening Forward. Moreover, Teresa showed me how write award-winning proposals. Her guidance is what helped me get my organization, Greening Forward -- a youth-led environmental network -- off of the ground with the financial resources I needed. She often forwarded neat things to me from the environmental education and service-learning field. I was certainly not the only person who recognized Teresa's passion for empowering youth to become environmental leaders, Earth Force took Teresa on as a full-time staff person after her VISTA term ended.

But people like Teresa and Ms. Kimberly are a part of a program that is threatened. In fact, my congressman, Robert Woodall, once explained that AmeriCorps programs are paid volunteers, thus devaluing what volunteerism truly is in America. I argue that Teresa and Ms. Kimberly embody the very spirit of volunteerism itself. AmeriCorps volunteers certainly don't enter their service for the money. Small stipends are barely enough to live on. AmeriCorps offers thousands of young people an opportunity to work with countless organizations who are offering invaluable services to their community. Studies have shown that each AmeriCorps member has directly resulted in the volunteerism of multiple other non-AmeriCorps members. Moreover, the General Accounting Office has released reports that show that for each $1 invested in AmeriCorps, the government reaps $1.80, thus showing the fiscal responsibility of the program.

At a time when national service organizations are being increasingly relied upon to provide vital services to communities and growing numbers of citizens are looking for opportunities to serve, we should be looking to national service as a cost-effective solution, not eliminating funding to organizations providing essential support to families and communities in need. I only hope that stories of how AmeriCorps has impacted young people, like me as a student, will inspire decision-makers to continue supporting these programs.