In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the National Community Service Trust Act, which created the AmeriCorps program. In 1994, the first class of 20,000 AmeriCorps members began serving in more than 1,000 communities nationwide. Twenty years later, there are still people committing a year to national service.
I entered the program in November 2001, a recent college graduate with a sense of purpose and patriotism, following the terrorist attacks on September 11. I longed for a sense of community in a confusing time.
What I got was a bit different.
I joined AmeriCorps as an America’s Promise Fellow, a partnership with Colin Powell’s America’s Promise organization. I was tasked with adding value to a local community organization, while spreading the five promises to anyone who would listen. My espousals included a stint on local television that was decidedly not my shining moment.
My vision was to be part of something larger than myself. What I got was my first job of many in a small community-based nonprofit organization, minus the kumbaya.
I can recall attending an AmeriCorps training at the beginning of my term with a few other new service members. That was pretty much the last time I heard from the program. The rest of my training was carried out by the employees of the organization I was housed in.
I, like the handful of other promise fellows around the nation, had positions in local volunteer centers. I coordinated efforts in the Northern Virginia area to engage youth and families in service opportunities.
During my year there, after I saw a gap in youth engagement activities, I implemented a summer training program for teens. The program was embraced by the organization because as long as it didn’t cost that much, my service was seen as gravy. I had the freedom to shape my experience because I was an additional perk to their current programming.
Living off the stipend was another story. Luckily, I had parents who were proponents of service and helped me pay my rent for a windowless basement apartment. Later, when I went to use my education award during grad school, I learned the government takes taxes out of the award they give you for your service. That left me with some new experiences, and very little money.
I think AmeriCorps got me a position that I may not have gotten based on my limited work experience. It opened a door to a career in the nonprofit sector, encouraged me to pursue social work, and gave me more confidence as a worker.
I have continued a career in the youth development sector for the past 13 years. I have seen firsthand the value talented AmeriCorps members can bring to a small organization strapped for resources.
As my career has progressed, I have worked with many AmeriCorps volunteers. I was thankful to have a middle-aged AmeriCorps volunteer working for me when I was administering a youth program. Alison was an experienced human service professional who took time off from the field, and then when she returned, she was unable to find a job. Ultimately, she took a position as an AmeriCorps volunteer in hopes of getting a foot in the door.
Alison took on a vital piece of programming – mentoring – that would have taken me time that I just did not have. She ran with it, making countless phone calls, creating curriculum and event planning. Our organization, and more importantly our clients, experienced a greater volume of service.
Looking back on my experience as a volunteer and a nonprofit professional, it seems to me that the major value of AmeriCorps is the margin of human capital it brings to bear for nonprofits. Many struggle to deliver promised services with the staff they have, so a free injection of motivated labor might be the only way to even consider adding a new component.
While I didn’t get exactly what I was looking for, campfires and life-changing revelations, I think I got something more important: practical work experience. I am still here more than a decade later, still doing the same work and still believing it’s important.
Judith Fenlon is the editor of the Money and Business Section of The Chronicle of Social Change.