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Can Business Help Bring Civic Engagement to Scale?

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The spirit of young people, their idealism and desire to serve have been a source of inspiration since I co-founded City Year 25 years ago. Over the last quarter century, 18,000 City Year AmeriCorps members have dedicated at least a year of their lives to causes greater than themselves, from revitalizing under-served communities to serving as tutors, mentors and role models for students in some of the nation's highest-need urban schools.

But the young adults who served with City Year in 1988 are now in their mid-40s, and the demands of life, career and family make it challenging to stay civically engaged. The same is true for many working Americans who have the skills, expertise and desire to give back, but lack the time or opportunity. Fortunately we're seeing an increasing number of companies--particularly City Year's corporate partners--invest in initiatives to make service more widely accessible. Company-sponsored service projects and volunteer days support civic engagement, allow employees to unite over a shared goal, and to have a meaningful impact on the communities where they live and work.

Last month, our partner Aramark, which has a strong culture and passion for service, hosted its annual Global Volunteer Day. Thousands of employees participated in more than 100 service projects across the United States and in 14 other countries. The theme, Inspiring Kids to be Healthy for Life, focused on teaching children and families how to make the right choices to lead healthier lives. Aramark CEO Eric Foss, who initiated the global effort, and other company leadership also joined in, dedicating this day to serving their communities.

In the U.S., teams of City Year AmeriCorps members led service projects in ten cities including Los Angeles, where I served alongside Brad Drummond, the President of Aramark Uniform Services and member of the City Year Los Angeles Board. In an area where childhood obesity and nutrition-related illnesses are prevalent, our service project focused on the Salvation Army of Van Nuys, creating an urban garden for fresh produce, building an outdoor classroom to educate children about nutrition, and renovating the center's sports facilities. Across North America, City Year and Aramark created 88 community gardens, refurbished dozens of play spaces and assembled 2,440 healthy meal kits, while chefs and dietitians hosted nutrition and cooking demonstrations. More than 500,000 children and families were impacted, and the Global Volunteer Day effort helped expand the capacity of community organizations to target resources to one of our most vulnerable populations, children living in poverty.

As an organization committed to keeping students in school and on track to succeed, the health and well-being of children is especially important to City Year. It was also a special honor for City Year corps members to lead service projects with Aramark employees. For years Aramark has offered its expertise to help City Year strengthen organizational capacity, design leadership development initiatives, and improve systems for measuring impact. Aramark also makes our signature "City Year" jackets worn by nearly 3,000 City Year AmeriCorps members in 25 US locations. Aramark's Global Volunteer Day was an opportunity for corps members who serve full-time in high needs schools--many of which are in communities that benefited from the service provided that day--to share their passion for service with the very people who've supported City Year for nearly a decade.

I have always believed that the spirit of idealism and civic engagement should be part of the fabric of our culture and the habit of the 21st Century American heart. This means scaling the concept of service to one that lasts a lifetime. Companies that create opportunities for their employees to utilize their talent and goodwill to create lasting positive change are vital to achieving this goal.