We’re Neglecting Those Who Wish to Serve

Today begins what will be a series concerning issues I came across and experiences I had this summer, of which there are many, and I could probably dedicate The Garfield Political to what I learned this summer for the foreseeable future. But I won’t, and I’ll focus on 3 or 4 key things, starting today with national service. And I’m not talking about military service.

This summer, I was given the opportunity to work as an intern at an organization called City Year Denver. Now, my guess is, you’re like me before I started working there, and have no clue what City Year is. In fact, if I were to ask the majority of people if they could tell me what Americorps does, they wouldn’t have any idea what exactly Americorps is. For most people, they hear Americorps and think immediately of the Peace Corps. And that’s not a terrible thing, exactly. Because Americorps is derived from Peace Corps; it’s the idea that young Americans should be able to serve their country, but instead of doing it abroad in the Peace Corps, they make changes in the U.S.

National service actually predates the Peace Corps. Its origins are in the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC, a program created by FDR during the Great Depression to get young men working again, allowed young Americans an opportunity to develop the country and serve it as well. The CCC actually still exists today, doing similar work, as an Americorps program called the NCCC, or National Civilian Conservation Corps.

But Americorps has its roots in City Year, the organization I interned for this summer. City Year was born in Boston in 1988 in order to give young adults from the city an opportunity to serve their community in a number of different ways, from working in parks to schools to retirement homes. For a while, a lot of the participants in the program were recently released from the criminal justice program, and City Year was an opportunity for them to be reintegrated into society.

In 1992, while Bill Clinton was running for president, he was out for a jog in Boston, when some City Year participants (they get a different name later) came across the then-governor, and gave him a City Year sweatshirt and told him about the program. He kept the sweatshirt, and a year later he was out for a jog again, but this time he was the President of the United States. And when reporters saw him wearing the sweatshirt, he decided to let them know what City Year was, and that he was creating a plan to expand City Year and programs like it, to expand national service.

That became Americorps, which now hosts a number of programs, but you’ll most likely have heard of Teach for America. It’s an umbrella that includes things like VistaCorps, SeniorCorps (yup, the same thing just for seniors), and the NCCC. City Year prides itself on being the origin of Americorps and continues to do allow young Americans aged 18-25 to serve their communities for a year.

When it began, City Year allowed those who joined the program to serve in their communities in pretty much anyway. But today, they serve exclusively in schools in 29 U.S. cities (with the likelihood they’ll keep growing; they just added a site in Buffalo this year). Now referred to as Americorps Members (or ACMs), they go into schools in groups of around 9, and work with students who aren’t so far behind as to be on a watch list by the school, but are certainly struggling to remain on track to graduate from high school on time. The ideal City Year scenario would have students working with ACMs in their schools from the time they’re 1st graders until the 10th grade. And they’ve seen success across the board since the program began 30 years ago.

As an intern in the City Year Denver office this summer, I had the opportunity to understand all the aspects of the City Year program, from the direct work in the schools, to the development (fundraising) aspect, to the recruitment of new ACMs. And there’s a great possibility that programs like City Year, that allow for so many young Americans to serve their country, are going to begin to collapse.

See, Americorps is paid for by the taxpayers. It’s a part of the U.S. federal budget every year (as well as some funding coming from the states), and for City Year, it accounts for the living stipend for 70+ ACMs, which is one of the most critical aspects of the budget. And then they have to fundraise twice that amount every year in order to support staff and other aspects of the program.

But Americorps funding isn’t growing at the rate it needs to. In fact, the Trump Administration, in both the FY18 and FY19 budgets supported cuts to the program and its funding (luckily, it continues to have strong bipartisan support, and so funding will likely never be cut). But the funding isn’t growing. And it could be.

ACMs don’t live glamorous lives. In Denver, they make $14,000 a year, live on food stamps and often with more roommates than are intended for the space they live in. They serve communities while they themselves are living without much of anything. And on top of that, they work nearly 11 hours a day, 5 days a week, often experiencing second-hand trauma from the students they grow so close to as they work.

Now, we shouldn’t be making it a great job, with lots of pay. But in a city like Denver, where housing prices are sky high, Americorps simply doesn’t have the ability to keep raising the living stipend, because the money just isn’t there. And ACMs can’t serve if they can’t live to a certain point. Beyond that, how is a program like City Year supposed to grow and serve more students around the country if they don’t have money? City Year is a major, national non-profit, but they simply can’t fundraise enough each year to make it possible to exist without Americorps’ support.

We spend trillions of dollars every year on the military, where we laud those who join the forces for their service to the country. And while I certainly don’t want to diminish what service members in the armed forces put in (because I believe it is honorable), young people who join Americorps are serving their country in what I see as the same thing. Why can’t we dedicate the same amount of resources to something as incredible as what they do?

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