Happy Anniversary, AmeriCorps!
President Obama and former President Bill Clinton are swearing in hundreds of new AmeriCorps volunteers today to mark the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, a program created by Clinton in 1993.
National volunteerism is actually older than the 20th anniversary being celebrated today. Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was envisioned by former President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and founded by former President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as a national service program to fight poverty in America. VISTA was incorporated into AmeriCorps in 1993.
I have a soft spot in my heart for AmeriCorps because one of my daughters was an AmeriCorps VISTA in Austin, Texas. She worked for AVANCE, a non-profit that works with Hispanic moms with preschool children to promote literacy and school readiness. My daughter did marketing, maintained their Facebook page, created an e-newsletter, planned and executed events, including the “graduation” ceremony for the moms and kids, taught ESL classes and handled volunteers, all at no cost to the agency, thanks to AmeriCorps.
Young people learn a lot from public service. My daughter felt good about raising awareness of the agency in Austin, contributing to fundraising and providing support for an agency doing important work that can help lift children out of poverty. She enjoyed the families that she met, and their appreciation of the help AVANCE gave them.
During her year of service, my daughter acquired numerous job skills, but also learned to work in a diverse environment. She learned that she could survive on below-poverty wages like many of the people her agency served. Living in a house with three other people and one bathroom, budgeting for rent and food were all valuable life lessons for her.
AmeriCorps volunteers are not supposed to earn or have access to any other income while they are working for AmeriCorps. My daughter and her AmeriCorps friends quickly learned to pool money to buy groceries, to have a garden, to ride bikes or carpool and to find free entertainment.
Did she ever complain about it? Yes. She got tired of working so much for such little pay. There were times that she would add up the hourly amount she was making and feel discouraged and undervalued, just as so many other hard-working people feel. While she liked her roommates, there were times that she wished for more solitude – and another bathroom!
For my daughter, the poverty ended. After she successfully completed her service, she received a stipend to apply toward her college loan. She left with more maturity and great job experience, which helped her land an excellent job in Austin.
The people that AmeriCorps serves are not so lucky. They continue to struggle day to day, year after year, to keep their children fed, healthy and safe. AmeriCorps supports agencies such as AVANCE that can make a real difference in people’s lives. And, often, I’m sure that the AmeriCorps volunteers get more from the experience than the people they are serving. Happy Anniversary, AmeriCorps!