ServiceNation: Educating about Service

Richard Smaby

Most of us have heard about AmeriCorps and know that it and similar programs provide opportunities for national and community service. But few of us understand to what extent these and similar programs are woven into the fabric of service in this country. I interviewed Carol Farer about her role as Field Organizer of Washington State for ServiceNation. This interview is timely, as the House of Representatives proposes to eliminate federal funding for AmeriCorps, while the President's and the Senate's budgets include funding.

Question: What exactly is ServiceNation?

Carol: To explain what ServiceNation is about, I need to explain how AmeriCorps and similar organizations function in our country and community.

First, I want to mention that historically AmeriCorps and its precursors have had strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. President George H. W. Bush told incoming President Bill Clinton that the one program he hoped Clinton would keep supporting was his Points of Light program. Clinton combined it with VISTA and the National Civilian Community Corps under the umbrella AmeriCorps. He then passed a similar message on to President-elect George W. Bush, who also gave service his strong support. It is only in recent years that these programs have become a target for elimination.

These programs provide service opportunities for service for people of all ages. Young people make up the bulk of AmericaCorps and VISTA participants. Participants receive a small stipend of $12000 per year for a full time position. In turn, they provide a critical resource to over seven hundred non-profits, schools, public agencies and community partners in Washington that are struggling with inadequate budgets. Some of these organizations are so dependent on the AmeriCorps participants that their elimination would force them to look for other funding sources including Congress or cease operation. Current programs and locations in Washington State can be found on the Corporation for National and Community Service website.  Here is an example of AmeriCorps involvement in Pierce County. It is hard to imagine how the government could get more for its money. Though the stipend is extremely low, participants experience other benefits. They may find a new direction for their lives in service – a benefit for our country as well. They have a valuable experience they can put on their resume. There is also the possibility of getting an educational award for a full year of 40 hours per week service.

I had a young woman, who had served in AmeriCorps, staying with me while she did a hospital rotation required for her physician assistant program. She became inspired to serve in healthcare while doing her AmeriCorps term at a community health clinic. The physician assistant college she was accepted at required two years of healthcare experience, which she had gotten through AmeriCorps.

Low income seniors may join Senior Corps, where they work part-time assisting non-profits. Examples are Seniors Helping Seniors, Foster Grandparents and RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. These programs provide minimal compensation, but a sense of pride in serving.

Question: So, how does the organization you work for, ServiceNation, fit in here?

Carol: ServiceNation was founded in 2008 as a coalition of service and volunteer leadership to inspire citizen service in America. Its income comes solely from grants from foundations and donations. It does not receive funding from the federal government. It works by grassroots organizing, so Congress can hear from its constituents that they want support for AmeriCorps. I am the Field Organizer for Washington State. There are currently three other states with full time paid organizers and many other states with part-time volunteer organizers. I talk to community leaders, government leaders, stakeholders and ordinary citizens. I organize events to promote awareness of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, such as the Stand for Service Washington Town Hall in Tacoma on May 29. 

There are two prongs of ServiceNation's approach. The first is to raise awareness in the public about the extensive contributions of national service programs. For example, everyone knows about Habitat for Humanity building houses for people. What people don't know is that Habitat is heavily dependent on AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps provides the people who can organize and manage a construction project. People don't just magically appear with hammers and nails and expertise. AmeriCorps participates in disaster relief. In fact, now FEMA has its own AmeriCorps team that they depend on. The Red Cross is also a heavy user of AmeriCorps members. Currently there is a push to provide transition experiences for veterans and military spouses through AmeriCorps. I have personally written grants to get VISTA and RSVP assistance for community programs that I managed in the past.

The second prong is to engage congressional members and their staff in understanding the powerful impact that national service programs have in their congressional districts and the State. We bring together the various stakeholders to meet with our members of Congress to educate them about the value of these important resources and the consequences of funding cuts or elimination. We collect support letters from mayors of our cities and military leaders and encourage other supporters to communicate directly to their Senators and Representatives through phone calls and letters. We grow coalitions to show broad levels of support for national service programs. We provide opportunities for members of Congress to visit program sites and demonstrate their interest in supporting national service. My job is to keep AmeriCorps and Senior Corps on their radar screen.