National Service Bill Boosts Opportunity for Older Americans

05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When you think of national community service, young people probably come to mind, along with programs like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. But national community service programs are about to undergo a major change that will involve more midlife and retired people who want to get involved in helping their communities.

The House of Representatives approved the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act this week. The legislation -- which will be signed by President Obama when he returns from his eight-day trip to Europe -- gives a major boost to funding for a range of national community service programs targeting all age groups. But somewhat overlooked in the bill is funding for positions for people at midlife or in retirement, who hope to transition to community service-oriented non-profit work.

The Serve America Act was named for was named for ailing Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, a chief sponsor of the legislation and a long-time advocate of community service programs. It increases funding in programs like AmeriCorps and creates new volunteer programs focused on education, clean energy, health care and veterans. For older workers, the bill does the following:

• Establishes Encore Fellowships for Americans age 55 or older in one-year management or leadership positions in nonprofit organizations. There will be a maximum of 10 per state.
• Increases the number of AmeriCorps positions to 250,000 (from 75,000 currently) and targets 10 percent of those slots for people age 55 or older.
• Allows AmeriCorps members over 55 to transfer their education awards -- increased to $5,350 -- to their children and grandchildren.
• Creates Silver Scholarships that would provide a $1,000 higher education scholarship to people 55 or older who contribute a minimum of 350 volunteer hours a year. The scholarship is transferable to their children, foster children or grandchildren.

The Encore Fellowships program has been championed by Civic Ventures, a non-profit think tank focused on engaging older adults in work with social meaning in the second half of life. Civic Ventures has been piloting an Encore Fellows program with private funding this year in Silicon Valley, in which corporate veterans and others are working in education and environmental non-profit organizations.

"Most people think national service is for young people -- and it is," says John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures. "But the big breakthrough in this legislation is the idea that national service is for all people. It's a fundamental recognition that those who are at midlife can be critical part of a cadre of people who can help solve problems.

"The other big shift is that this creates a pathway for older people who want to serve a year in a non-profit organization as a bridge between midlife work or retirement into an encore career with social purpose."

Learn more about the Serve America Act at