When our nation is in crisis the worst thing we could do is eliminate government programs that were set up to help alleviate crises. A bill was recently passed in the House of Representatives created by the Republican Party that would cut programs like AmeriCorps (a government funded civil service program). As of now the Senate has voted against the bill, leaving the House to do some much-needed editing.
Perhaps the House forgot that it was AmeriCorps who first responded to Katrina in 2005 and who continue to have a presence in New Orleans working with such programs as the St. Bernard Project and Hands On New Orleans. What they do there is simple; they rebuild. Not just houses, they rebuild people’s lives.
If you visit New Orleans and take a day drive through the lower ninth ward, the most prominent thing you’ll notice is the complete lack of anything to notice. It’s a ghost town. Only 1/3 of the population returned after the storm in part because they were too poor to afford to fix their mutilated homes. That’s what programs like AmeriCorps are for; to “get things done” for America when her citizens are unable to.
But how relevant is AmeriCorps today? As an alumnus of AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps, descended from the Civilian Conservation Corps of the early 1900′s, and also the only branch of AmeriCorps that travels the country to help nonprofit organizations) I can tell you that everywhere I traveled with my very diverse and amazing 9-person team, we were greeted with two things: admiration and relief.
There are some organizations that can’t run unless an AmeriCorps team is present, like certain branches of Habitat for Humanity, whom I worked with in Liberty City, FL. You know, the city that the graphically violent video game Grand Theft Auto is based off of as well as the location of the 1980′s race riots. It’s also a place that greatly benefits from the presence of Habitat for Humanity.
Living in Liberty City was…interesting. Placed in a 3 bedroom residence, my team and I witnessed (from a safe distance) our neighbor get tased by the police as well as drug busts and prostitution. But you don’t join AmeriCorps expecting the Ritz. You join expecting to make a difference, and it’s a rare chance in a person’s life where they can truly see the difference they’re making in the eyes of the grateful. It is a sight my team, who quickly became my family, experienced many times over during our 10 month commitment to the program.
My team was also sent to work near Savannah with the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Program. We did environmental work with oyster shells, treading through mud that sometimes went up to our necks, getting cut up by the shells, lifting 10-15lb bags of them for hours at time, all in the name of erosion prevention. It was a project that offered an alternate sense of accomplishment. Instead of seeing the faces of people we had helped, we got to partake in the science behind methods that will help people and the environment in the future (we also partook in some pretty awesome mud fights!).
The realization that I wanted to do a program like this wasn’t something that hit me in a sudden flash of civic duty. It was a quiet understanding of the things I could be capable of, cultivated by tragedies in the news and this undercurrent of sympathy for people who needed help but weren’t getting it. When I found out about AmeriCorps and how truly unique it is, I wanted to be a part of it – to be a part of something greater than myself. People are always looking for that kind of connection; from religion to love to war.
The things you learn and the ways you grow are immeasurable. It’s an entirely selfish way of looking at it, but AmeriCorps challenged me and changed me. I’d recommend this program to every person in the allotted age slots of 18-24. And not just because you get a $5000 education grant at the end (and who doesn’t love sweet financial aid like that?), and not just because it’s a free program that provides everything including food, transportation, a small monthly stipend, and uniforms forged from the depths of fashion hell.
I would recommend this program because of what you put into it; faith in civil service and a work ethic that makes Paul Bunyan look lazy. It’s only superseded by what you get out of it; the knowledge that you’ve done what all those cheesy public service announcements preach on cable TV. You’ve made a difference. People’s lives are better because you were there. Not because just anybody was there, but because YOU are the type of person who would choose to give back.
Is there unnecessary spending in AmeriCorps? Probably. Find me a government program that never goes over budget and accomplishes everything it was created for. Go ahead. By the time you’ve done enough research to realize that program doesn’t exist, houses will have been built in New Orleans, a group of teenagers will have been lead by AmeriCorps members in cleaning up their city, the fight against poverty and illiteracy will continue, and disasters will be met with fortitude and unwavering commitment. That brand of dedication comes from doing something not for money or glory, but because of the absolute belief that it needs to be done.
Should AmeriCorps be cut? Let me put it this way, in light of the worst earthquake in Japan’s history that took place last week devastating the country, this is what I saw my Facebook newsfeed from my fellow AmeriCorps Alumni, Randi Barge:
“Wonder how many AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Alums woke up this morning, turned on the news, and thought ‘I want to help!’”
In fact, nearly everyone on my Facebook who has posted concern for Japan has been an AmeriCorps alumnus.
The generation before us is perpetually complaining about the ones that came after it. That is the same generation threatening to cut this program. But if they are worried about America’s youth, they need look no further than those who dedicate their time to AmeriCorps. And if they are worried about the state of our country, they should spend a day with an AmeriCorps team getting their hands dirty with service work, bettering the nation every way that they can.