"America's greatness was not crafted in skyscrapers alone, but on the ground by those who could see what needed to be done." -President Barack Obama
This week is AmeriCorps Week, during which AmeriCorps programs around the country shine a spotlight on the ways "AmeriCorps works." AmeriCorps works by placing citizens at the center of the solution and demonstrating how service is for the people, by the people, for a stronger nation.
The reason AmeriCorps works is that it takes a need and addresses it with a cost-effective, community based approach.
The program I co-founded, FoodCorps, is a proud part of the AmeriCorps service network and a prime example of how AmeriCorps works. The particular need FoodCorps is addressing is creating healthy school food environments and long-lasting relationships with healthy food for children at risk for diet-related disease. The resource we use is human capital in the form of emerging leaders passionate about health, education and the environment.
I asked our service members deployed in 250 schools in 12 states around the country what they think makes this service model work and a few salient points rose to the top.
The first key factor was that our model allows for community-specific solutions. We are a national program with a unified goal -- to connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy -- but the way our service members accomplish this goal reflects the needs of the community they serve. The solutions for the Midwestern city of Flint Michigan will vary from those needed on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona.
Our service member Kendal Chavez in Albuquerque described it this way:
The model of a national service force that is highly flexible and truly molds to the needs of each specific community is incredible. One size definitely does not fit all in community work and the AmeriCorps model recognizes that.
The second major aspect many of our service members touched upon is addressing large-scale problems (like childhood obesity) in what feels like small-scale ways (a school garden). They are collaborating with school nutrition directors to get local healthy products onto cafeteria trays using their time, energy and commitment to achieve astounding results; this school year, since August 2012, FoodCorps service members have offered over 342 cafeteria taste tests, helped to introduced 163 new ingredients and 77 new dishes onto the school menus, and helped to bring nearly 21,000 pounds of fresh produce into the cafeteria. They are building raised garden beds with scrap wood and donated soil and seeds and the harnessed labor of community volunteers -- 230 garden projects to be exact. They are teaching kids about healthy food and doing taste tests using the food that grows in those gardens. They are placing salad bars in their cafeterias and kids are now demanding that their parents buy broccoli on their shopping trips. Yes, broccoli.
Our service members also describe the feeling that they are getting at least as much as they give, often much more. They are learning hands-on skills that they can't pick up from books, and setting themselves up for lifetime careers in education, agriculture and public health. As Daniel Marbury, serving in Michigan explained, "it has enabled me to develop my confidence, skills and passions, while working to inspire the same transformation for others in my community."
By connecting them with these opportunities, we are setting these service members up to be community leaders. As service member Stephanie Simmons, in Boston, explained: "Service helps to build well rounded leaders, with a personal stake in the change they wish to create."
In fact, several service members mentioned how their service has taught them what it means to be a good citizen and to engage in democracy. Stephanie's colleague Marlie Wilson summed it up beautifully:
Every adult should have the opportunity to give back to society with a term of service: by working to improve our communities, we learn first hand what it takes to forge sustainable solutions to critical social ills. This year of service has helped me to become a better informed citizen, equipped to contribute to, and strengthen, this country's democracy.
Since 1994, more than 800,000 men and women have taken AmeriCorps' pledge to "get things done for America," providing more than one billion hours of service. Join us in celebrating their service.
Follow Debra Eschmeyer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/foodcorps