What do the following have in common: habitation restoration in Arizona, youth sports in Illinois, and high school student mentorship in Washington? All are among the more than 40,000 local programs run each year in collaboration with AmeriCorps, the federal agency for community service and volunteerism.
More than 75,000 members and volunteers are part of this national service network designed to strengthen local communities and come to the aid of their residents in times of need. AmeriCorps volunteers of all ages are helping educate students for the changing workforce, responding to natural disasters, and, now, bolstering community response efforts to the pandemic.
“National service is being called upon to demonstrate what communities forged in compassion can bring to bear,” says Mal Coles, acting CEO of AmeriCorps, in a statement. “At this time of unprecedented need, we have the responsibility to deliver for American families and communities, with the urgency and boldness that the moment requires.”
Over the past year, AmeriCorps members have helped support critical services like contract tracing, testing sites, and vaccine distribution centers, and have helped with student homework programs and at overstretched food banks.
Tomorrow, local leaders around the country pause to recognize the positive impact these volunteers and the more than 1.2 million AmeriCorps alumni have made on their communities this year—and for more than 50 years—during the annual National Service Recognition Day.
Developing Valuable Personal Skills, Exploring Careers
Most AmeriCorps members are between the ages of 18 and 30, with around 15% over the age of 30. Members commit to a specific term of service—anywhere from a few months to a full year, full-time or part-time—and receive a stipend and other benefits. Adults over the age of 55 can volunteer for national service through AmeriCorps Seniors.
In addition to helping our communities, members and volunteers are also helping themselves by honing their nontechnical skills and exploring career opportunities, says AmeriCorps spokesperson Samantha Jo Warfield. “I hate the phrase soft skills because I think they’re actually the most important skills, in a way. I think those [skills] are consistent, no matter which AmeriCorps program you serve in.”
Warfield recounts watching a young AmeriCorps member help an elderly homeowner sort through damaged family treasures after a flood.
“How much better would our world be if more young people had the tools, the sort of emotional, teamwork, team building skills to navigate these really complicated and difficult situations? That’s something that AmeriCorps gives you,” says Warfield.
She adds, national service gives members the chance to test the waters in the workforce. “That’s not to be undervalued because otherwise you’re going to build a whole life around a career that you think you want without trying it.”
National Service Can Provide a Career Pathway
“Right now, particularly, it’s a historically awful labor market. Young people have been among the hardest hit in terms of job losses and their education is also really disrupted. They are losing their connections to these two major institutions of school and work,” says Martha Ross, senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.
“National service can provide structure. It can provide guard rails. It has multiple benefits when it’s done well,” says Ross. In a recent report, Ross says national service can expand members’ opportunities.
“It’s offering paid work experience that allows people to increase their skills in ways that are difficult to do in the classroom,” says Ross. “They are working with people, community members, their team members to solve real world problems.”
She continues, “They’re also making connections with their fellow core members, with people in the communities. We know how important networks are to finding jobs. There’s some data that suggests that nearly half of all jobs are found through informal referrals.”
Education and Career Benefits for AmeriCorps Members
“It’s giving people a pathway to a future, whatever that means for them, and for some people that means a career in a specific field,” explains Warfield. After successfully completing their terms of service, members are eligible for the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.
“That award can be used to pay for qualified education expenses, which include community college, four-year college. It could also be used for things like EMT school, certification programs. It can be used for technical schools and training programs,” explains Warfield. “It can also be used to pay back student loan debt.”
Warfield also notes that members who are serving may not be keeping up with the student loan payments. “If you’re making $15,000 a year and probably not paying back, the agency will pay the interest on your loans. Little known secret.”
“There’s a growing list of schools which are creating rewards and benefits to the AmeriCorps alumni who come to their institution,” says Warfield. “Baylor, for example, creates one full-ride scholarship for an AmeriCorps alum each year.”
“Kentucky, we’re working with right now. They’re trying to do a large-scale effort on this front with all of their community colleges to offer something along these lines, to get them in this network specific to certifications.”
Warfield says employers are also making commitments to AmeriCorps members. Employers of National Service is a list of 650 plus companies—public, private, nonprofit—who have committed to hire AmeriCorps alumni.
With a recent increase in federal funding, both Warfield and Ross are looking to an increase in the stipend issued to members. “If the living allowance is too low, only middle class and the well-to-do will be able to afford this,” says Ross.
“With additional funding, we’re really able to think through what the options are within our power as an agency that could make service more equitable and accessible to more people,” says Warfield. And that will increase education, job, and career opportunities.
Measuring the Value of National Service
Warfield calls AmeriCorps members “super citizens” and notes, “The alumni research is crazy, out of this world.”
- 93% of alumni say that, after their service, they feel comfortable interacting with others that are different than themselves.
- 94% say national service broadened their understanding of society and different communities.
- 7% of AmeriCorps host organizations hired members.
“Everyone deserves to feel like they have something to contribute. Right? And national service can do that,” says Warfield.
Adds Ross, “Right now we really need the energy and the ideas of a bunch of young people addressing some of our really serious problems.”